Tufts environmental engineers tackle destructive nutrients in nation's waterways

April 01, 2003

MEDFORD/SOMERVILE, Mass. - Researchers from Tufts University have received two three-year grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) totaling more than $1.2 million to study how to control the destructive effects of excessive nutrients in waterways - an environmental problem that threatens aquatic plant and animal life across the country.

"Tufts is a national leader in computer modeling for urban water quality issues," said Steven Chapra, who holds the Louis Berger Chair of Computing and Engineering at Tufts. "These grants will leverage our expertise in developing computer models that will reflect the ways in which nutrients--such as lawn fertilizer, animal waste and other substances--enter America's waterways."

The computer models developed by Chapra and his team of Tufts civil and environmental engineers, including Paul Kirshen, Richard Vogel, John Durant and Lin Brown, will help scientists and communities across the country more effectively manage nutrients.

"Eutrophication" occurs when these nutrients foster excessive growth of plant life in the water, using up oxygen in the water and killing aquatic life. The lack of oxygen also leads to the release of more nutrients as well as other pollutants from sediments into the water.

In recent years, the U.S. government has mandated that local governments adopt a new approach to managing water quality by focusing on all of the factors affecting a watershed*, rather than simply regulating the area's most significant polluters. This new approach means that significant but often-overlooked factors such as street and agricultural runoff are now taken into account.

The digital modeling tools that the Tufts engineers are developing with colleagues from MIT and North Carolina State will help local communities map out their watersheds, identify trouble spots and take cost-effective steps to manage the nutrients entering the water. The Tufts team also will develop similar computer models that will be used by the EPA and state governments - improving upon their current systems for managing watershed nutrients.

The engineers are using Massachusetts' Mystic and Aberjona Watersheds to design the computer modeling programs--but, according to Kirshen--"The technology we've developed will benefit waterways throughout the world."

The watersheds of the Aberjona and Mystic Rivers are ideal for this research because they encompass urban, residential and undisturbed lands with streams and lakes. Many of these areas have been heavily affected by decades of development and contamination. A half-million Massachusetts residents--just under 10 percent of the state's population--live in 21 cities and towns within the 76-square-mile Mystic River watershed alone.

"For more than 30 years, Tufts' civil and environmental engineers and health sciences researchers have been trailblazers in addressing the safety and security of our world's most precious resource--water," said Jamshed Bharucha, Tufts' provost and senior vice president. "In the past five years alone, they have received more than $20 million in funding because of their leadership in tackling a wide range of water issues, from groundwater remediation and watershed pollution to water-borne bacteria and wildlife habitat preservation. And their findings continue to create and/or strengthen public policies regarding the proper use and protection of the world's water supply."

The Tufts team is also "knee deep" in the final stages of another EPA-funded project--developing the first system to predict, assess and report the Mystic River's water quality to area residents "in real time."

Tufts engineers have installed water monitoring equipment along the Mystic and Alewife Brook at locations heavily used by recreational boaters and swimmers. This spring, data from these sites will be transmitted through radio technology to a central server at Tufts, where information will be processed, archived and placed in publicly accessible venues such as dial-in phone messages, cable television and Internet web sites. Color-coded "water quality" flags also will be placed at key riverfront locations. The Tufts team, and its partners from the city of Somerville and the Mystic River Watershed Association, will undertake an aggressive information campaign to let area residents know that this information will be readily available at their fingertips.
Editor's Note: A watershed is an area of land that encompasses smaller waterways which drain into a larger body of water.

Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives spanning all Tufts campuses and joint degree programs are available for both undergraduate and graduate school students in liberal arts, sciences and engineering, and the University's eight graduate and professional schools.

Tufts University

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