Dr. Kent Messer is the S. Hallock du Pont professor of applied economics at the University of Delaware and the project director of Project WiCCED. Dr. Holly Michael is the Unidel Fraser Russell Career Development chair in the environment at the University of Delaware and associate professor of geological sciences. She is research lead for Project WiCCED.
Think about the stream that flows through your neighborhood or the river you drive past on the way to the work.
How does it look? Would you drink from it?
We wouldn’t. We doubt you would either.
You don’t need to be an expert to know that the water in Delaware has problems. Too much trash. Too much algae. Too much ick.
Excess nutrients from fertilizers and wastewater compromise our rivers, groundwater, and estuaries. Not surprisingly, more than 90 percent of Delaware’s waterways have been classified as “impaired.”
Worse yet, Delaware’s long tidal shoreline and low elevation make its waters vulnerable to salinization (increasing levels of salt), a problem made worse by rising sea levels and groundwater withdrawals for industry, agriculture, and municipalities.
Salt is bad for drinking water and our freshwater habitats. Additionally, increasing salinity could aggravate existing water quality problems by triggering release of polluting nutrients and industrial contaminants currently bound in the soil.
So, water quality in Delaware, as in other coastal zones around the world, is particularly susceptible to pollution because it is “squeezed” between contamination sources on land and saltwater at the coast.
Poor water quality negatively affects human health, ecosystems, and critical economic drivers in Delaware, including agriculture and tourism.
These threats arise largely due to human behavior — whether from excess nutrients from households or food production, chemical pollutants from present and past industrial activities, increased salinity due to groundwater pumping and sea-level rise, or degradation of ecological systems from an expanding human footprint. Because our actions affect our water, improving water quality is fundamentally about making better decisions.
These decisions need to be based on clear scientific understanding, reliable methods and models, and improved technologies. We need evidence-based policies and programs that invoke behavioral change and cost-effective solutions that lead to better water quality.
While it may be easy to see that there’s a problem, solving it isn’t easy. Sometimes people call water quality problems “wicked” because while everyone agrees that clean water is important, there is no simple, quick-fix solution.
Wicked problems are complicated, and made up of competing human needs that push and pull on each other. We need to use water, grow food, and manufacture goods. Yet these essential activities are what pollute our water, and polluted water will affect our ability to continue to do these things and to live healthy lives.
So how can we prevent the downward spiral and work toward a sustainable balance of present and future needs of Delawareans? To make real progress, solutions must come from multiple sectors working together — industry, private citizens, government, nonprofit organizations, and academia.
Fortunately, this effort is getting a major new boost. The state of Delaware and the National Science Foundation have come together to devote $23 million toward a new project entitled “Water in the Changing Coastal Environment of Delaware” (Project WiCCED). Project WiCCED will address Delaware’s wicked water problems and will better prepare us to take on these challenges today and in the future.
The project brings together many of the brightest minds from Delaware State University, Delaware Technical Community College, the University of Delaware, and Wesley College. Project WiCCED will involve more than 90 individual faculty and research professionals and approximately 650 students.
It also will work with the state of Delaware and nonprofits such as Delaware Nature Society, Delaware Wild Lands, and the Center for Inland Bays. And it builds collaborations with the business sector, such as Tidewater and other water utilities.
The institutions involved in Project WiCCED represent a dynamic network of people, institutions, data, and technologies directed at securing our water resources for human, economic, and ecosystem health.
The project attacks this wicked problem from multiple sides by integrating engineering, natural, and social sciences to develop novel and evidence-based solutions. Our educational and training mandates will ensure that students with diverse backgrounds and interests are engaged across these disciplines in order to develop a workforce capable of addressing water security challenges in Delaware and around the world well into the future.
While the activities of Project WiCCED are specific to Delaware, they will have broad applications in other coastal areas in the U.S. and around the world.
More than half the world’s population lives along a coast, and resources are being pushed to their limit. Water is a universal, overarching concern and a major determinant of human health, political stability, and overall quality of life. Governments, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations have numerous unmet needs associated with analyzing, forecasting, and planning near-term and longer-term responses to water challenges.
Delaware will play a key role in addressing this global challenge. Education and training opportunities throughout the project will help prepare the next generation of scientists, engineers, and leaders to meet future challenges, contribute to economic growth in the state and the nation, and improve environmental health.
Now that is a project we are happy to raise a glass (of clean water) to celebrate!
This article originally appeared in The News Journal on January 10, 2019. You can read it here.