Remembering President Lovell’s Leadership on Water Issues

Marquette President Michael R. Lovell

On September 19, 2014, Dr. Michael R. Lovell delivered his inaugural address upon taking office as Marquette University’s 24th president. That day Dr. Lovell announced that Marquette would expand its role in the water sector, encouraging Marquette faculty, staff, and students to develop water solutions “that will change the world.” This was not an isolated commitment; it extended Dr. Lovell’s history of strong support for water initiatives and continued during the decade he spent at Marquette’s helm.

With the news of his untimely passing last week, my purpose here is to reflect on the significant legacy Dr. Lovell leaves behind in the water sphere, as most recently embodied in Marquette’s evolution as a center for work aimed at helping to solve the world’s water problems.

Today, the growth in Marquette’s interdisciplinary water research team evidences the university’s unwavering commitment to the subject. The group includes faculty members from a variety of disciplines including biology, economics, education, engineering, law, and political science. Its members have expertise in water and wastewater treatment technologies, stormwater management, materials and sensors, sustainable and resilient communities, water law and policy, hydrology, and many other areas.

Dr. Lovell was always proud to mention the interdisciplinary projects the team was pursuing, often making it a point to note how many different academic units were involved from across campus under the guiding hand of Dr. Jeanne Hossenlopp, Vice President for Research and Innovation. Most recently, the water group secured Marquette’s largest ever federal award for water research, a large-scale interdisciplinary research partnership with the United States Army Corps of Engineers to promote healthier environments for both military personnel and civilians. 

Of course, these research efforts are only one aspect of Marquette’s commitment to water innovation. The university also has become a leader in water education, sustainability, and community engagement and partnerships. It is training future generations of water leaders in a variety of academic disciplines.

Some of this work had been ongoing prior to Dr. Lovell’s arrival at Marquette, such as the formation of the Water Quality Center in the College of Engineering and the Law School’s active engagement in the Milwaukee regional water initiative since its creation in the early 2000s. But with Dr. Lovell’s call—and challenge—to all units of the university for greater engagement with matters involving water, these efforts flourished. For example, the Law School announced an expanded Water Law and Policy Initiative that now offers students a wider suite of courses and fieldwork opportunities, regularly hosts public events and conferences, and pursues independent and funded research opportunities.

A discussion of Dr. Lovell’s water legacy would be incomplete without mentioning his work prior to his arrival at Marquette. As chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he was a driving force behind the establishment of The Water Council, a key Milwaukee-based organization dedicated to establishing the region as a global hub dedicated to solving critical water challenges. Also under Dr. Lovell’s leadership, UWM announced a plan to create the nation’s first School of Freshwater Sciences.

In closing, it seems appropriate to mention that President Lovell’s focus on water issues was likely rooted in his strong Catholic faith. He often was interested in discussing Pope Francis’s encyclical letter confirming that water is “a fundamental right” that is “indispensable to human life,” and calling for engagement in an “open and respectful dialogue” about water policies, laws, and technologies. Dr. Lovell also signed the St. Francis Pledge, committing Marquette to join many other academic institutions recognizing a duty to care for the environment and protect the poor and vulnerable, among other things. With Dr. Lovell’s passing, it is up to us to steadfastly carry on this important work.

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Will Water Recycling Come to the Midwest?

Existing drinking water sources are under increasing strain due to overuse, climate change and other threats. Water recycling, also known as water reuse, may play a significant role in creating the sustainable cities of the future. Millions of people around the country are already being asked to drink recycled water, either indirectly (through a process in which treated wastewater is discharged to an environmental buffer such as groundwater or surface water and is later taken into the water distribution system) or even directly (when treated wastewater is immediately discharged into the water distribution system without an environmental buffer). At an April 10 conference sponsored by the Law School’s Water Law and Policy Initiative, several experts discussed the history and future of such technologies, and whether they are likely to emerge in Wisconsin or remain limited to the more arid parts of the county.

Noted author and journalist Peter Annin opened the event with a summary of his new book, Purified: How Recycled Sewage is Transforming Our Water. Annin described a significant water crisis facing many parts of the country, leading also to trouble in the production of food and energy, sectors long intertwined with water. Annin cited only two realistic options for “new” water supply­­­­—desalination and water reuse. Reuse is the far more sustainable option, he said.

Annin covered numerous historical case studies involving efforts communities have made to introduce recycled water into their water supply portfolios. Some were successful (Orange County), others less so (San Diego, at least at first). But Annin explained that careful examination of the United States Drought Monitor reveals that water shortages are not only a problem in the arid West. As a result, water reuse projects have been implemented or at least attempted in the more humid parts of the country too—in Norfolk, Virginia and Tampa, Florida, among other places.

In reviewing the lessons learned from all these efforts, Annin identified several keys to successful implementation of water recycling projects, including effective strategies for communicating with the public, rigorous monitoring of the water produced, and reliable technologies to ensure public safety.

In Wisconsin, at least so far, such technologies are more a matter of interest than necessity. “Nobody recycles water because it’s cool,” said Theera Ratarasarn, a panelist reacting to Annin’s presentation who is Chief of the Public Water Engineering Section for the Drinking Water and Groundwater Program at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Instead, they do it because they have no other choice; it is a last resort.  In Wisconsin, Ratarasarn said, “everywhere you look, you find water.”  Thus, he said, it isn’t necessary to resort to water recycling. In fact, it would run afoul of a Wisconsin legal requirement that the public drinking water supply come from “the best available source practicable.” As a result, Wisconsin regulators are more concerned about other pressing issues like PFAS, lead, and nitrate pollution.

Another panelist, Rachel Havrelock, who is Professor of English and director of The Freshwater Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago, observed that most people are accustomed to “single-use water,” and this view drives our discomfort with water recycling. In fact, she said, water recycling more closely emulates nature and the multiple-use water cycle. In most places, she said, there is already de facto water reuse, with treated wastewater returned to surface water and soon thereafter reclaimed for drinking water treatment a short distance away. Havrelock’s team has proposed a separate water reuse-driven supply for agricultural and industrial purposes in Chicago and the surrounding areas. “We don’t need to drink recycled water here,” she said, but reuse can still make a big difference by reducing the load on the portion of the water supply that will be used for drinking. She cited a “groundwater emergency” in many parts of the Midwest. “Water reuse is part of climate change adaptation,” she concluded, and the “legal world is absolutely vital at this juncture” to regulate the practice.

Michael Duczynski, a research civil engineer with the United States Army Engineer Research and Development Center, confirmed that from the military perspective there are plenty of avenues for non-potable reuse. The military, he said, has large critical infrastructure needs at many of its installations around the world, including everything from cooling towers to data centers. The resilience of those installations—and of civilian communities— can be increased through water reuse options, he said. Duczynski described a new project through which the military is discerning the regulatory requirements for a spectrum of potential reuse applications spanning different levels of treatment, different end uses, and different jurisdictions. Employing some of these projects could save millions of gallons of water, he predicted.

Video of the full program is available here (click the “watch now” button).

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Marquette Law Students Contribute to Regional Study of Chloride Pollution

Chloride pollution of surface water and groundwater is an intractable problem. On one hand, sodium chloride (salt) is an important component of winter maintenance efforts that keep roads and other traveled surfaces free of snow and ice. On the other hand, many scientific studies have examined the potential risks to human health and natural resources associated with excess chloride in the environment, such as deteriorated ambient water quality, toxicity to aquatic and benthic organisms, adverse effects on vegetation, and even impacts to drinking water supplies.

Yet little of that scientific work has been directed toward developing legal and policy strategies to address the chloride issue. On the contrary, overapplication of salt has historically been the “safe strategy” to avoid liability in slip-and-fall cases in the absence of any coordinated policy approach.

To complicate matters, chloride is extremely difficult to remove using traditional water and wastewater treatment approaches, so use reduction appears to be the only effective management strategy. Given the public safety concerns, though, that approach is complex to say the least and must involve consideration of legal, environmental, and safety issues, among others.

Building on the proposed framework for the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission’s comprehensive Chloride Impact Study for the Southeastern Wisconsin Region, and working closely with Commission staff, Marquette Law School students Margaux Serrano (L ’24) and, prior to her graduation, Ivy Becker (L ’23) led the effort to develop a report examining a menu of responsive legal and policy options available to decision-makers in the Region. These include limiting slip-and-fall liability, relying on direct regulatory authority such as the Clean Water Act or corresponding state regulations and municipal ordinances, disseminating relevant information to stakeholders and the public, using alternatives to chloride where feasible, leveraging new policy strategies such as water quality trading, investigating integrated watershed management across jurisdictions, and leveraging economic measures and assistance.

Without question, these policy options will not all be appropriate in every context. After evaluating community-specific considerations, policy makers may choose one or more to reduce the problem of chloride transport to surface waters and groundwater. The report is not intended to suggest the elimination of chloride use in its most visible forms (winter maintenance and water softeners). Rather, it suggests that such use be optimized. Optimization carries “triple bottom line” benefits for the environment (in chloride reductions); for the economy (in cost savings on chloride expenditures and personnel hours); and for society (in improved public health).

A draft of the report is available here on the Commission’s Chloride Impact Study website.

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