TigerTalks in the City: Water Sustainability
Photo by Sandy SooHoo

Princeton faculty Eric Wood and Howard Stone discuss water sustainability

TigerTalks in the City: Water Sustainability

A wide-ranging discussion of issues surrounding water sustainability kicked off the second season of Princeton Entrepreneurship Council’s TigerTalks in the City. Princeton faculty panelists Eric Wood, Susan Dod Brown Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Howard Stone, Donald R. Dixon ’69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, were joined via videoconference by Adam Wolf, CEO of Arable Labs, Inc. and Natalie Shivers, Princeton University Associate Architect.

The panel discussion and networking reception were co-sponsored by New Jersey American Water. Senior Vice President, Eastern Division of American Water and President, New Jersey American Water Rob MacLean opened the evening with some advances in the water utility space, an industry not generally perceived as innovative. “There’s a real challenge in the sector. Innovation is something that hasn’t really been embraced, but it is starting to change,” said MacLean, who described startups in California using data to help customers conserve water and innovative efforts to replenish aquifers in water shortage areas with treated wastewater.

Beginning with a definition of sustainable development as in meeting the needs of the present while ensuring that future generations can meet their needs, Wood detailed some of the issues related to water sustainability both now and on the horizon: “1.75 billion people today do not have access to water that is safe and clean and in ten years, this number is estimated to increase to half the world’s population.” Based on his research on the global water cycle and droughts, he developed a real-time drought monitoring and forecasting data platform that was then used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and by UNESCO in Africa and Latin America. Out of this work, he and colleagues launched a startup named Princeton Climate Analytics, delivering drought data for use in planning by clients such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Following Wood’s work on the global scale, Wolf discussed his data and analytics company Arable, which focuses on supply chain risk and food and agriculture. Using a measurement device that originated during his stint as a post-doc at Princeton, Wolf and Arable provide highly-resolved measurements – especially of water – at a single point at an individual farm field. With the critical role that water plays in various agronomic and commercial risks associated with agricultural production, Wolf said “if we develop our technology right, it can help people make better decisions and ultimately lead to reduced water usage and better long-term sustainability. Our place is helping people better quantify and manage risk as it relates to water usage.”

To provide the on-campus perspective on water sustainability, Shivers discussed current and future stormwater planning. Campus expansion into adjacent wooded stream valleys resulted in degradation of these areas over the years. In 2006, university planners took steps to enhance the ecological health of the stream valleys while integrating future development through the 2016 Campus Plan. The Frick Chemistry Building (completed in 2010) was the first to incorporate a multi-pronged approach to stormwater management, including reducing impervious surface, planting rain gardens to manage stormwater, and incorporating a rainwater harvesting system to use in the building for toilet flushing, and restoring the forested buffer to the Washington Road stream valley. “The results were a beautiful landscape, improved health of the stream valley, a new area for recreation, healthier biohabitat, and a state-of-the-art chemistry building,” remarked Shivers. Over the last ten years, similar measures in 20+ projects across campus have resulted in runoff reductions of 23 million gallons per year. Even more ambitious strategies are being considered for the still-developing 2026 Campus Plan.

To round out the panel, Stone discussed the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), which “brings together scientists, humanists, social scientists, all who are concerned with the environment in one way or another.” Through integrated research and teaching activities, PEI’s Grand Challenges Program addresses critical environmental problems of the 21st century, including seven projects on water-related issues. Most recently, Stone has been involved in a PEI Grand Water Challenge focused on filtering particles from water without a filter through a process called diffusiophoresis.        

During the Q&A session, the ethics and social considerations of water was the major theme. “The taste for consumers for products that reflect their ethics is the dominant trend in agriculture,” said Wolf, also highlighting a need for a mark or seal that reflects “water-conscious” sustainable production similar to “organic” or “GMO-free”. Wood also emphasized the need maintain water production practices to maintain clean supplies both domestically and abroad, and the critical need to improve basic access to clean water in impoverished areas. Water access in relation to the changing climate and in disaster relief situations will remain major issues.

The next TigerTalks in the City is scheduled for November 30, 2017 at WeWork in Chelsea in New York City. More details will be available at entrepreneurs.princeton.edu soon.   

— Wright Seneres
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Director or the plutonium refinement in Yonkers.