What contaminants lurk in the urban subsurface, and what happens to them once they're there? Do they make their way into storm drains and creeks to reach groundwater, or even oceans? Or do they naturally attenuate as they migrate through soils, somehow allowing them to self-cleanse as they travel? A UC Santa Barbara researcher hopes to find out, thanks to a generous new gift to fund her work.
Longtime water industry executive Henry H. Wheeler, Jr. has awarded $1.25 million to the Bren School of Environment Science & Management for Professor Patricia Holden's new initiative, "Urban Water Environment," a research and training program on urban water quality. The dual-thrust endeavor looks to identify and quantify threats to surface waters and groundwater in urban environments -- and determine how to mitigate them.
"Henry Wheeler's strategic and visionary philanthropy will make a meaningful difference in addressing local and global water quality issues; I am honored to thank him for his leadership and generosity in supporting this critical initiative on water contaminant processes and management," said Chancellor Henry T. Yang. "We are extremely proud of Professor Holden's accomplishments and continuing research efforts on microbial ecology and engineered nanoparticles in the vadose zone."
"This is a generous gift by someone who understands water inside and out, and how important research can be in creating solutions to water quality threats," Holden said of Wheeler. "He understands that this is the way we live now, in urban environments. It's not just about the pipes underneath our roads and buildings. It really is all one system. We have potable water to drink and shower with, but we generate waste streams that can then threaten the very resource that cities depend upon -- ongoing sources of clean water. Rainfall running off polluted surfaces becomes a sort of waste stream. Industries and businesses store and spill contaminants underground. How are we managing those water pollution sources in ways that protect the entire urban water environment?"
Wheeler, whose family founded the Park Water Company in Downey, Calif., approached Holden after reading her earlier research, which employed DNA and dye tracer techniques to reveal the presence of human waste in creeks and storm drains, indicating underground sewer leakages.
"Coming from the water business, I know how we worry about underground infrastructure," Wheeler said. "People tend to take it for granted. They think it's down there and it's OK, but it's not. Leaking sewer pipes are a huge problem, and it's not just a local problem; it's ubiquitous."
"We need to know if water is a factor in disease or not, and if it is, we need to remediate it," he added. "That requires good science, and Dr. Holden and the Bren School are up to the task. I wanted to support her and her team, because they're the boots on the ground in those efforts."
When her new project gets under way later this summer, Santa Barbara itself will serve as a lab for sampling, coring, and analysis that Holden said could ultimately illuminate issues plaguing cities around the world. If resulting insights and possible remedies can one day inform or be replicated in other locations, her work will hold potential implications for public and environmental health on a broader scale.
"Groundwater might not be Santa Barbara's normal source of drinking water, but under drought conditions it absolutely can be," said Holden. "There are major cities -- Tokyo, for example -- where they've shown pharmaceuticals entering groundwater. So to the extent that this project is meant to be a window into a general problem, we are concerned about the outcomes on behalf of Santa Barbara, yes, but we're also thinking about how it can provide insight into the broader problem."