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Michigan research cluster launches national water infrastructure network

The age and condition of urban infrastructure systems are critical issues, not only for Michigan, but for cities across the United States. Against this backdrop, Michigan’s University Research Corridor (URC)—an alliance of Michigan State University (MSU), the University of Michigan (U-M) and Wayne State University (WSU)— today announces the launch of a collaborative pilot program - the Infrastructure Network for Water (IN-Water).

IN-Water is an initiative focused on moving science-to-practice in addressing aging water infrastructure issues statewide and across the nation. Envisioned as a national network that will, in time, include multiple forms of infrastructure, such as transportation, energy and telecommunications, IN-Water will connect researchers and practitioners through the exchange of ideas for addressing advanced technologies, development of creative solutions, reducing barriers to implementation and formation of collaborative partnerships.

“The URC continues to conduct cutting-edge research that in turn proves to have real-world implications, impacting not only our state but serving the global community,” said Joan Rose, Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University. “We’re proud to be part of this well-deserved focus on protecting our nation’s water resources which in turn will protect our health through the creation of this infrastructure network.”

In 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that $384 billion is needed in capital improvements over the next 20 years to ensure water systems can provide clean, safe water to the American public. As water and wastewater utilities respond to this growing problem, utility professionals are forced to make critical and costly decisions, often in the face of limited data. In order to make informed, cost-effective decisions, there is a need to understand the causes of asset deterioration to better predict failures and implement effective responses. While viewed by some as a problem, this may also represent an opportunity to transition to a newer, higher performing approach rather than simply replacing water infrastructure in-kind.

“Aging urban infrastructure is a serious problem facing the nation, and the Flint water crisis is simply one point of proof,” said Glen Daigger, professor of engineering practice in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan. “The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure a grade of ‘D’ or poor, and that’s entirely unacceptable. As a nation, we must be able to immediately and efficiently provide a solution to, or support for, either the rehabilitation of distressed infrastructure, or replace it with higher-performing systems.”

With this understanding, the IN-Water network would provide a much-needed resource for cities struggling with and managing aging water and wastewater infrastructure. The overall mission is to secure a network of experts that will focus on decaying infrastructure in urban areas and will promote science to practice across multiple infrastructure systems, including transportation, communications and energy, with water as a pilot. Additionally, the goal would be for these experts to create a framework linking water quality to health in communities and for use in promoting academic, government and private partnerships in the future to address water infrastructure from source to tap.

IN-Water is supported by a two-year, URC-funded grant that includes two phases. The first phase starts March 24 at the University Club at Michigan State University with one of three workshops to be held at each URC institution. Each workshop will bring together 30 fellows, who are leaders in water-related and other types of infrastructure from academia, industry, and government, and feature a national speaker with relevant knowledge and experience managing or participating in a national network within their field or industry. The public is welcome to attend a presentation by each featured speaker. Workshop details, including speakers, locations, and dates can be found on the URC website. Phase Two will include a water colloquium for national invitees and experts to address key questions and discuss best practices for developing this national network of infrastructure experts. “Our universities have been working together for years on complex water-related research,” said URC Executive Director Jeff Mason. “These institutions and experts within this field are undoubtedly in a position to provide the research, technology and innovation needed to create solutions to the problems facing our nation’s water infrastructure.”

In 2014, the URC released a report on the Blue Economy, which found that the URC universities received more than 2,100 awards, totaling nearly $300 million for water-related research and outreach from 2009-2013. These efforts led to innovations in a wide variety of areas, from dealing with invasive species to monitoring water quality and finding ways to optimize water use in agriculture. Many of the researchers are now focused on the challenges associated with aging urban infrastructure; and in addition to collaborative efforts across URC member institutions, these researchers have established collaborative relationships with colleagues at leading universities and organizations across the nation, as well as community organizations within the urban centers.

“The significance and impact that clean water and a strong infrastructure has on our state—and the value it provides to society — is obvious,” said Carol Miller, director of Wayne State University’s Healthy Urban Waters program and professor of civil and environmental engineering. “With this understanding, it was a logical decision for these three universities to combine expertise in development of a nation-leading water infrastructure network. We expect IN-Water to play a leading role in the research, maintenance and implementation of numerous technologies and innovations relating to Michigan’s water resources.”

This pilot program is unique in its focus on developing multi-disciplinary solutions to aging infrastructure that prioritizes a research-to-practice approach through time-sensitive and knowledge-rich linkages between academia, industry and government.

For more information about the URC and the IN-Water program, visit www.urcmich.org.

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