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Emily Kumpel Wins NSF Grant to Monitor Small Water Systems Stressed by Disasters

Emily Kumpel

Emily Kumpel

David Reckhow (left) and Casey Brown (right)

David Reckhow and Casey Brown

Dr. Emily Kumpel, an assistant professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department, and co-PIs Drs. David Reckhow and Casey Brown of the CEE department, have received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Civic Innovation Challenge Program. The goal of Kumpel’s NSF planning project is to support pioneering tools for the inspection and monitoring of small water systems and to ensure their continuity of operations during and after emergencies.

Among other outcomes, this proposed project would directly address challenges that small communities face due to the COVID-19 pandemic and help with preparedness for future disasters, including future pandemics and extreme weather events.

The Civic Innovation Challenge is a research and action competition that aims to fund ready-to-implement, research-based pilot projects that have the potential for scalable, sustainable, and transferable impact on community-identified priorities. The full list of awarded projects as well as updates on the team’s progress can be found at The Civic Innovation Challenge webpage.

Kumpel’s planning project is a collaboration between academic and local government partners to develop and pilot remote sanitary inspection and water-quality monitoring systems and to increase access to skilled personnel in small community water systems. The team is made up of researchers and civic partners from UMass Amherst, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

The team is tackling research that addresses challenges faced by small rural community water systems throughout Massachusetts when managing risks to water quality during and after extreme weather events or pandemics. The results will be used to protect drinking water in the tens of thousands of small community water systems across the U.S.

As Kumpel explains, “Most (97 percent) water systems in the U.S. are considered ‘small systems,’ serving less than 10,000 people and facing the extraordinary challenges of aging infrastructure, climate change, and limited finances as compared to larger water-treatment systems, which typically have adequate resources to address challenges.”

Kumpel notes that more than 45,000 community water systems in the U.S. are classified as small, while providing a vital supply of potable water to residents of mostly rural communities. These small systems, hampered by fewer resources than large systems, must deal with numerous challenges made harder by natural disasters and pandemics such as COVID-19.

Kumpel explains that, to better protect the water supplies under these types of emergency scenarios, it is necessary to develop and test new tools capable of assessing from a distance how well these small water systems are working and of supporting the operators who run these systems.

UMass Research Engineer Patrick Wittbold, who is working on the project, says that “Many of the water treatment issues these communities face can be effectively addressed by partnerships with nearby communities facing similar issues and strategic planning at the county or state level. The idea is similar to other municipal services such as paramedics, firefighters, or police, where rural towns have already developed strategic partnerships to pool resources and collaboratively handle emergencies, small or large.”

The specific aims of the planning period of the NSF grant are to: investigate and pilot tools for conducting remote sanitary inspection and remote monitoring of water sources and treatment infrastructure to improve delivery of safe water in small water systems throughout disasters and recovery; and explore a model of enhancing human-resource capacity during emergencies in the form of shared operator programs.

“Specifically,” says Kumpel, “we will develop and pilot a mobile system which simplifies and streamlines sanitary surveys and inspections for source waters and treatment facilities.”

Kumpel adds that the project “will also evaluate novel water-quality monitoring devices for application in small water systems and develop a model for a shared-operator program for the towns located in three [Massachusetts] counties.” (March 2021)