Groundwater is a necessary resource for communities around the world, but in some areas, it’s being depleted faster than it’s being recharged naturally. Is sustainable groundwater possible? The answer is yes, and Virginia Tech is leading an effort to solve this water security crisis.

Researchers from the College of Engineering have been awarded $2 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to research the use and risks of enhanced aquifer recharge to improve groundwater availability and quality. With the funding, part of a larger $7,837,196 award to four institutions, Virginia Tech is developing a web-based decision-support tool to guide communities, agencies, and practitioners in designing safe and sustainable implementation methods that replenish existing groundwater and restore streamflow.

Mark Widdowson, principal investigator and department head of the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will lead a team of researchers to advance safe and sustainable implementation of enhanced aquifer recharge in the U.S. coastal plain and equivalent hydrogeologic settings throughout the world.

“Our project team of engineers and scientists aims to advance sustainable groundwater usage by addressing recharge risk and performance factors,” said Widdowson. “We are committed to solutions for safe drinking water and economic growth that are protective of the public and the resource.”

Joining Widdowson are co-principal investigators Amy Pruden and Jingqui Liao from civil and environmental engineering, Madeline Schreiber and Ryan Pollyea from the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science, and Kang Xia from the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Widdowson has firsthand experience with successful aquifer recharge as co-director of the Potomac Aquifer Recharge Monitoring Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. He works with graduate students, faculty, and Hampton Road Sanitation District (HRSD) engineers on research related to advanced water treatment, aquifer recharge, and groundwater monitoring.

Groundwater withdrawals by companies, municipalities, and homeowners in eastern Virginia have diminished the groundwater supply in the Potomac Aquifer, making the region vulnerable to land subsidence, sea-level rise, and saltwater intrusion. The aquifer’s groundwater is a limited natural resource because the surrounding clay and bedrock prevent water from recharging naturally.

The Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow (SWIFT) is a managed aquifer recharge initiative that will take highly treated wastewater that would normally be discharged into surrounding rivers and put it through additional advanced water treatment to produce water that matches existing groundwater chemistry throughout eastern Virginia. That will enable the water supply to remain productive for generations to come by repurposing wastewater into groundwater. The sanitation district is currently recharging the aquifer with as much as 1 million gallons of repurposed water per day.  

“Our approach builds on the experience of our team with the ongoing demonstration of enhanced aquifer recharge at the SWIFT Research Center in partnership with HRSD,” said Widdowson. “We are honored to have this opportunity to translate practical knowledge in support of greater water security and improved groundwater quality.”

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