2020 Research Updates from the Water Quality Research Foundation

July 2, 2021

Research updates from the Water Quality Research Foundation

About the author:

Kimberly Redden is foundation relations & research manager for WQRF. Redden can be reached at [email protected] or 630.929.2512

In spring of this year, a new research project by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst began with Drs. Emily Kumpel, David Reckhow and John Tobiason. This project will conduct a sustainability comparison of the options available to small community water systems that have a known Safe Drinking Water Act compliance issue. This research will evaluate all three pillars of sustainability, including human, environmental and economic impacts, for either centralized treatment upgrades or using point-of-use (POU) or point-of-entry (POE) to achieve compliance. This is the first project to look at this topic from the lens of sustainability and will use real-world data from four case studies with a regional balance. 

The original plan included the researchers going onsite at these case study locations for more efficient data collection, but with COVID-19, this is now moving ahead as a remote working relationship with the communities to keep the project on schedule. This project is an example of the time and effort put into a variety of Water Quality Research Foundation (WQRF) projects in recent years, and how the process has resulted in new research designed to benefit the industry. 

Years Behind the Scenes 

The amount of new research WQRF has started in the last few years is without a doubt unprecedented and made entirely possible from the industry’s dedication to science. It took some time not only to acquire the funding over the last five years from the Capital Campaign, but to also prioritize which research projects to fund first and develop procedures needed to support the research. 

WQRF currently has seven on-going research projects: four contracted research projects and three more in the RFP development/proposal vetting phase. Each one of these projects has a research task force for technical review and a communications task force for disseminating results. This research is conducted for the industry and the industry is involved every step of the way. 

Most of the research projects funded by WQRF are submitted by industry members and prioritized through an intentional evaluation and buy-in process. With the exception being the grant program and partnerships project opportunities, which go through a different approval process. With the guidance and oversight of the Research Advisory Committee, a two to three sentence idea submitted to WQRF will eventually turn into a detailed two-page charter with scope, impact, estimated cost and complexity. The committee will then conduct surveys to get feedback from the industry and donors for insight into which research concepts there is the most interest. 

From there the committee will further evaluate the concepts from a cost and impact perspective, using scores from these surveys as an objective tool to help them prioritize research. Finally, concepts are then presented to the WQRF Board, which decides whether to develop an RFP and collect proposals on the concept. Once approved, the concept is put in the research queue and budgeted for the following year. The second approval comes after a task force has vetted proposals, and the board will approve the task force’s top recommended proposal. 

The First-Ever Grant Recipient Completes Research 

In an effort to have a program for research that positions the industry for the future, WQRF launched its Research Grant Program. The grant program awards one researcher a grant of up to $50,000 for a project related to the WQRF’s mission and the selected research agenda category for that year’s grant. The purpose of the grant program is to solicit and potentially fund unique and interesting ideas from the research community aligned with WQRF’s mission, bylaws and research agenda. This program allows academic and independent researchers more flexibility for direct submission of study proposals which are topical to the WQRF research agenda. So far, WQRF has funded two research projects under the grant program and is currently evaluating proposals for the third award this year.  

The first-ever grant was completed last year, titled the Point-of-Use Pathogen Survey and conducted by the University of Arizona. The goal of this study was to develop a method for improved monitoring of tap water quality at the household level, with respect to microbial contaminants of human health concern. Although there has been much development in the area of real-time monitoring of drinking water distribution systems, widespread implementation has not yet occurred for various reasons. Using POU devices for this monitoring provides a cost-effective method and is available on the market today. Monitoring POU filters near the end of their life expectancy provides a method for directly detecting fecal bacteria and human viruses that may be present in large volumes of water over long time periods or following suspected contamination events that may occur after system maintenance, storm events or general treatment failures. 

There are many reasons the concept of monitoring large volumes of water over long periods of time is important to public health, including infiltration of contaminants, back siphonage events, distribution construction or repair, and microbial regrowth. Some of these events are unanticipated vulnerabilities in the distribution system outside of a municipalities’ control with an unavoidable time delay from discovery to public notification.

What Did the Grant Program Find?

In collaboration with a local household water filter provider, 0.5-micron, nominal POU filters, utilized as pre-treatment to reverse osmosis (RO) membranes, were collected at the end of their lifecycle from 75 households throughout Pima County, Arizona, during scheduled maintenance. To minimize variability and the chance of cross contamination, filters were provided by a single, senior technician trained in proper handling. Hand sanitizer was used to cleanse technician hands, and gloves were worn when handling the devices during removal and transfer to Ziploc bags for controlled temperature transport. 

All samples (n=75) were processed for fecal bacteria analysis and integrated cell culture, along with qPCR for human enteroviruses. Filters were washed with 3% beef extract and eluates were concentrated using membrane filtration and assayed on MI agar for E. coli and BGMk cells for human enteroviruses. E. coli and total coliforms were detected on 53 filters (71%). No samples tested positive for enteric viral pathogens. 

Results indicate household water treatment filters can be used for large volume monitoring of drinking water quality at POU. However, retention of introduced pathogens on the tested filters is low and may still underestimate public health risk. Data from this study provides new insights into environmental monitoring at POU and novel applications for risk characterization in the future. Applications for future implementation of POU devices for monitoring could be for routine survey as well as during outbreaks, boil-water notices or other emergency events. 

For more information on all the on-going research by WQRF, please visit Current Studies page on WQRF.org.

The New Normal in 2020 

With the Water Quality Association (WQA) Mid-Year Leadership Conference (MYLC) going virtual, WQRF wanted to offer a fundraising event that still provided a networking experience like it normally does for in-person events. WQRF is proud to offer a Virtual Wine Tasting by Adelsheim Vineyard to benefit WQRF. Just as water quality varies greatly from region to region, so does wine. Participants will learn how to differentiate grapes grown in different regions, have a glass of wine with their peers and support a cause. Registration will close late August in order to ship wine packages by the virtual MYLC planned for Sept. 15 to 17, 2020. 

1. Reynolds, Kelly. Household POU Pathogen Survey. Zuckerman College of Public Health, University of Arizona. Tucson, AZ. 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.wqrf.org/uploads/8/3/5/5/83551838/20190805_2017grant_executivesummary.pdf

About the Author

Kimberly Redden

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