UA researcher's goal: Saving water to farm

$4.3M grant to fund recycling study

FAYETTEVILLE -- Challenges surrounding water usage also raise big questions that University of Arkansas, Fayetteville researcher Lauren Greenlee is working to answer.

"How do we sustain our way of life? How do we sustain the lifestyle that we're all used to? How do we sustain being able to go to the grocery store and having this wide selection of products?" said Greenlee, an assistant professor of chemical engineering.

Greenlee has won a $4.3 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture to work with farmers on ways to recycle water.

The grant award, announced last month, also involves evaluating whether water technology used in other industries might work for agricultural applications.

"This is a very different world than even 150 years ago, and it comes back to the availability and cleanliness and safety of water. And ag supports all of that," said Greenlee, who joined the UA faculty in December 2015.

Last year, she won $2.4 million in National Science Foundation funding as the lead principal investigator for a project to study ways of taking nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater and converting the chemicals into commercial fertilizer.

Yet Greenlee said she does not have an agriculture background. Instead, she collaborates with agriculture experts while bringing to the table her research expertise on water systems.

"I have a personal passion to study water: water treatment, water contamination, water quality," Greenlee said.

Agriculture usage makes up about 80 percent of water consumption in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Greenlee's project is one of seven receiving a total of $34 million through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Water for Food Production Systems Challenge Area.

"These are larger projects that are really focused on trying to solve a real issue, which means it's not just building knowledge, but we're really trying to push things towards solutions," said Jim Dobrowolski, national program leader for water at USDA's National Institute for of Food and Agriculture.

Dobrowolski said the seven projects selected for grant awards were chosen from 88 proposals reviewed by a panel of scientists "from across the country."

Water scarcity is a concern with drought, including recently in the South, as well as the dwindling of water supplies from underground aquifers, Dobrowolski said.

That leaves "nontraditional" sources, some of which might include water used to wash out dairy operations or even in nonagriculture operations such as the water used to cool power plants, Dobrowolski said.

Some areas with water scarcity already routinely recycle water, but "we're going to start using a lot more of that nontraditional water, with treatment, to grow crops," Dobrowolski said.

Greenlee said she's working with the Arkansas Farm Bureau to better understand the needs of farmers. Initially in Arkansas, at least, she said she plans to work with dairy and hog farmers on ways to recycle water used in their operations.

Greenlee said agriculture producers work to manage water so as not to be wasteful, but water recycling so far has not become common in the state.

Metro on 10/01/2018

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