David Reckhow, professor of civil and environmental engineering, is UMass Amherst’s go-to guy on water. Since water supply safety has become politicized like never before, that is a high responsibility indeed—last year, Reckhow took graduate students to Flint, Michigan, to test the water. He sets a high standard on a campus renowned for its water research and opportunities for students and industry partnership.
Reckhow recently presented his Distinguished Faculty Lecture, one of the campus’s most esteemed faculty honors, titled “Drinking Water in Crisis: Lead, Lignin, and Legionella.” Opening with scenes from his childhood in the 1960s along the polluted Niagara River—and before the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency—Reckhow then led audience members through three cases that illustrate the detective hunt that is modern water research: invisible, carcinogenic water contaminants that interact with chlorine; the cascade of factors that led to the growth of water-borne disease in Flint; and the environmental justice implications of the predominance of lead service lines in poor communities . . . like Flint.
The questions of how we might solve pressing water issues provide students with an endless list of answers to seek, in an area of great social relevance.
“I’ll talk about some solutions we’ve been working on at UMass—technological solutions and other, nontechnological solutions that I see down the road,” said Reckhow.
One solution is fieldwork taking place right at UMass. Research engineer Patrick Wittbold and postdoctoral fellow Celina Dozier oversee a team of undergraduates in the Mill River Monitoring Project. At a reclaimed field station at the western border of campus, students measure changes in the chemistry of Amherst’s drinking water supply and assist businesses such as Clean Membranes and Aqua Metrology Systems in developing and testing water monitoring and filtration technologies.
The political ramifications of water have become part of our daily consciousness: its cleanliness and availability, the territoriality that surrounds it, and the conflicts with access to other societal priorities, like fuel. Water issues touch fields of engineering, chemistry, public health, social justice, and public policy. The questions of how we might solve pressing water issues provide students with an endless list of answers to seek, in an area of great social relevance.