Sandia LabNews

Legislation takes aim at safe, secure, sustainable water supplies through technology, national policy support

Legislation takes aim at safe, secure, sustainable water supplies through technology, national policy support

Elected officials in both parties and from several states, including New Mexico and California, lined up behind a billion-dollar-plus bill last week that would direct scientists The bill proposes research expenditures of $200 million annually for five years to address water issues around the country. It places Sandia at the center of the effort in the role of program coordinator. Eight other national and federal laboratories would team with universities to operate regional water research centers, if the legislation is approved and funds are appropriated.

The bill also proposes $20 million annually for facility construction and $5 million for administration, bringing the five-year total to more than $1.1 billion.

Supporters say the sweeping proposal represents a major effort to revitalize water supply research and development. Federal funding of water supply R&D has been flat since the late 1960s, distributed among 17 agencies and eroded by inflation. Research to increase water supplies is currently done by only three federal agencies.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who introduced the bill on the Senate side, said his interests in water research reach well beyond the uncertain groundwater supplies for drinking water in Albuquerque and the dwindling flow of the Rio Grande for irrigation.

"There are water problems related to quantity and quality in the East and in the big cities," he said. "We can no longer afford to invest in water in drips and drabs when it is vividly apparent that water-related issues will create some of the most significant domestic and international dilemmas facing us this century."

A more urgent issue

Drought and population shift are two significant factors making the management and use of water a more urgent issue for the nation, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who also supports the bill. "Meeting this challenge requires an increased national commitment to water resources research. This legislation makes that commitment."

"We have been fighting over a dwindling supply of fresh water in this country for a number of years," says Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. He will introduce a companion bill in the House. "We have to bring in new technologies in order to meet the demand in the future."

"This program is not about research alone. The program is structured to carry applied research through technology development and testing to full commercial implementation," says Peter Davies, Director of Geosciences and Environment Center 6100. Technology transfer and partnerships with industry leading to new commercial technologies will be critical to success.

"Right now we are talking about authorization, not appropriation. We are two or three steps along in a 10-step process," says Peter. "Given that, we are very excited about the scale of the program and the opportunities it presents."

Peter and a team of Sandia researchers got the Labs’ own water initiative off the ground about four years ago and have seen it grow to a major focus of research and development activity (see "Sandia’s ‘Team Agua’ " above right.)

Policy component

The bill also recognizes that in the world of water, regulations and policies are as critical as technologies, says Peter. "This is not purely a technical problem." A proposed policy institute would help researchers understand what regulations are actually driving technology and identify policy barriers. The University of New Mexico Law School’s Utton Transboundary Resources Center is named in the bill as the lead for the policy center.

As program coordinator, Sandia would be responsible for leading the development of technology roadmaps used to define R&D pathways. Sandia would coordinate research activities at the regional centers and competitive open research efforts outside the centers. The Labs would also coordinate critical technology transfer activities.

"There is a clear intent that Sandia work with industry research foundations, other labs and that we facilitate projects that connect the research to other federal agencies," says Peter. There is also an important role set out in the legislation for an advisory panel to guide the overall program. This advisory panel would include industry, universities, federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations, international water technology institutions, and the regional centers.

"We learned from our experience with the Desalination and Water Purification Technology Roadmap (Lab News, June 25) that our success came because we had a very strong needs-driven effort, bringing together people who are in a good position to define the needs. In this case, we need to bring together water managers, industry providers, and policy makers to define the needs. Then we will work with the R&D community to define the research and development that will meet those needs."

Recognition for Sandia

Sandia’s key role in the proposal is due to several factors, including the development of a broad-based Labs water initiative over the past several years. "We have enough effective engagement and impact that people are starting to recognize the kinds of contributions that Sandia can make," says Peter. Cooperative efforts with the Bureau of Reclamation to create the desalination technology roadmap and to develop security methodologies for the nation’s dams and key water systems are two examples. Sandia’s vulnerability assessment methodology for water infrastructure security has now been used by more than 90 percent of the large US cities, serving more than 130 million water users, he notes.

Sandia’s energy expertise also comes into play, Peter adds. Sandia began working with Los Alamos and the National Energy Technology Lab in West Virginia two years ago in an effort to look at interdependencies between energy and water. "Annually in the US, we use on the order of 136 billion gallons of fresh water for agriculture and almost the same amount for electricity generation," he notes.

"As water becomes more difficult to find, water for energy competes with water for agriculture, municipalities, industry, and the environment. New energy plants can’t find the water they need and existing ones operate at reduced capacity because of water shortages." US projections call for 1,300 to 1,900 new power plants by the year 2020. "Where’s the additional water going to come from?" Peter asks. The original triad investigating this issue has grown to 11 labs, he notes, and the energy-water theme will be addressed by several of the regional centers under provisions of the new bill.