Dirty Water Grounds Research
I want to do something about this because it’s not good for the environment, it’s not healthy, and it’s not just.
In 2004, Valerie Fuchs had a watershed experience. After her senior year of college, she traveled to Mississippi with Habitat for Humanity. She encountered "a very poor town in one of the poorest counties in the US."
There was no wastewater treatment and the water quality was poor—sewage went from homes to ditches, and then, during floods, from ditches into the Mississippi River. "It was something I didn’t think existed anymore in the US. I thought, 'I want to do something about this because it’s not good for the environment, it’s not healthy, and it’s not just.’"
She decided to pursue a career in water quality and sanitation and came to Tech for graduate study in environmental engineering.
Now beginning her PhD, she is under the guidance of Professor James Mihelcic and Associate Professor John Gierke. Supported by the National Science Foundation, she is addressing the effectiveness of nature-based, sewage treatment processes—such as engineered wetlands—for use between large-scale, urban treatment plants and small-scale, rural septic systems.
Engineered wetlands, lined with plastic or clay, are artificial swamps or marshes, and they use plants, soils, and bacteria to break down pollutants and clean up the water.
There are two types of engineered wetlands: those that flow horizontally for storm runoff and those that flow vertically, introducing the wastewater from the bottom up or the top down.
Fuchs has set up a laboratory system to assess the effectiveness of both—designing them for individual homes or clusters of up to two hundred homes.
The work has urgency, Fuchs says. "A Congressional study reported the water and wastewater infrastructure in the US is getting too small, deteriorating, and past its design life. There needs to be a lot more money and resources to develop new water distribution and wastewater treatment around the US."
She notes that a quarter of wastewater treatment in the country is septic systems—some "are not well monitored and not meeting treatment requirements."
Thus, the need for some smaller, more-natural systems that take wastewater, treat it, use it for irrigation, and release it back into the groundwater with a clean bill of health.
In striving for these improvements, Fuchs says she designed her research program to fit her own interests. And she loves Michigan Tech. "I can’t imagine a better place."