URI awarded Woodard & Curran Foundation grant to design climate change-adaptable water systems in developing countries

URI grad student Kayla Kurtz ’17 will help implement project that could serve as model for other communities across the world

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KINGSTON, R.I. –March 8, 2017 – The University of Rhode Island has been awarded a $100,000 grant from the Woodard & Curran Foundation to develop sustainable water systems that adapt to climate change. The three-year grant will be used specifically to implement a climate ready drinking water system for a newly constructed school in the coastal community of Cumayasa, Dominican Republic. The URI proposal was selected from a pool of more than 80 projects.

The Community Climate Change System project, based on the work of URI graduate student Kayla Kurtz, 26, of Westerly, will not only provide more sustainable, potable water for the school, but will serve as a model system that can be used in developing communities around the world. It will provide a detailed plan developed for communities to design water systems in preparation for climate change, which will impact water quality and quantity.

“Many large cities have developed climate change readiness plans for their water systems, but these types of plans are not often seen in smaller communities, especially in developing countries,” said Kurtz, who has worked on seven water projects throughout Latin America and Africa since 2008 and who is an engineer at Electric Boat.

Kurtz is the project lead and she is working closely with URI Civil and Environmental Engineering professors Vinka Oyanedel-Craver, an expert on chemical and biological processes related to sustainable water and wastewater purification, and Ali S. Akanda, whose expertise is in water security, climate change, and global health.

“We have the potential for a long-term impact and long-term commitment,” Oyanedel-Craver said. “We know the challenges they are going to face when they are implementing the system and the type of technology needed. There is an immediate need for clean water in this community and we need to solve the immediate need and also know the fate of the system 20 years down the road. If we don’t solve the problem, the water will keep on getting contaminated.”

Nearly 160 volunteers and two paid staffers are involved in the project and the team continues to grow. It includes professionals, students, and faculty from URI, including URI Engineers for a Sustainable World and URI Spanish International Engineering Program, the University of New Hampshire, and the University of Southern Florida. Faculty at Boston University and alumni from Columbia University’s Climate and Society Program are also providing support. In addition, students and professionals from 20 Engineers Without Borders chapters are volunteering.

Barry Sheff, president of the Woodard & Curran Foundation said “the Board of Directors was impressed by the team’s intent to not only solve a clean water issue for this school, but also to develop a decision-making framework for identifying resilient water system that could be applied around the globe. Of all the applications we received, the URI project stood out from the field with its innovative, collaborative approach to a problem that plagues much of the world and we’re excited to make this project our first Impact Grant recipient. The commitment to leveraging a range of predominantly volunteer resources and the opportunity to engage some of our Foundation’s donors and Woodard & Curran’s staff is particularly exciting for us. We look forward to following the team’s successes.”

URI’s Community Climate Change System project has three phases: assessment, implementation, and monitoring. Two URI graduate students and two environmental engineering professionals traveled to the Dominican Republic over Thanksgiving to complete the assessment. In the spring, a larger team will implement the drinking water system and educate students and the community about clean water, sanitation, climate change, and system maintenance. A year later, a team will visit to monitor the system’s functionality. Kurtz hopes to partner with a local university to start a water quality laboratory, allowing schools throughout the region to test and monitor water quality.