EPA grant aids UTEP-led clean water project

University of Texas at El Paso

The Environmental Protection Agency has approved an almost $500,000 grant for researchers from the University of Texas at El Paso to study different factors in the feasibility and sustainability of water filtration devices in colonias around El Paso and Doña Ana counties.

The team, which will include researchers from civil engineering and public health sciences, hopes to determine the best, most economical methods to provide water that complies with the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act to residents in rural areas of the Paso del Norte region, said W. Shane Walker, Ph.D., assistant professor of civil engineering and the project’s principal investigator.

Walker, who grew up on a cotton farm east of Lubbock, said this research is important to him because he understands the value of water when it comes to land and people. The research will target areas that lack basic infrastructure, where residents get their water from wells that may contain arsenic or micro-organisms or who store their water in tanks, which may become contaminated.

“The opportunity to lead this interdisciplinary project is very exciting to me because it will help people gain access to clean, healthy drinking water,” he said.

Walker said the three-year, $498,906 project will be broken into four phases starting in late spring or early summer.

It will include interviews with about 150 people in 12 focus groups to learn who would consider using “point of use” (POU) water treatment devices such as those that use hollow-fiber microfiltration (small straws made of membranes), reverse osmosis or nanofiltration (flat membranes), where harmful particles in the water are trapped.

The second phase involves collection of water samples and studies of the effectiveness of the POU devices. Phase 3 involves volunteers who will use the devices for several months. In the final phase, volunteers will respond to surveys about the water’s taste, smell, color and other qualities. The final report will be submitted to the EPA in fall 2014.

Walker’s team consists of fellow UTEP civil engineering faculty members Ivonne Santiago, Ph.D., lecturer; and John Walton, Ph.D., professor; and Joseph W. Tomaka, Ph.D., associate professor of public health sciences. Also on the team is Rebecca Palacios, Ph.D., assistant professor of health science at New Mexico State University. Three graduate students – including one from NMSU – will participate in the research, Walker said.

Palacios, who earned her doctoral degree in psychology from UTEP in 2006, has previous work experience working with colonias. She hopes to use her skills as well as her fluency in Spanish to promote the project.

“We want to make sure that the colonias have potable water,” she said, adding that regional industries such as dairies and fertilizer plants could contaminate the water table. “We hope this will help (colonia residents) find the most user-friendly (treatment) method.”

The research will be coordinated with various local, state and federal health and environmental agencies including the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

“Congratulations to Shane and his team,” said Marcelo Korc, Ph.D., sustainable development/environmental health adviser at the PAHO. “We look forward to working with UTEP in such an important study.”

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