Great Miami Aquifer holds region's hidden water assets

New project would monitor water quality

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CINCINNATI -- The Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer System is one of the region’s hidden liquid assets, supplying drinking water for nearly 2 million people in Southwest Ohio from Indian Lake in Logan County, through Dayton to the northern edge of Greater Cincinnati.

Now, researchers from the University of Cincinnati and University of Dayton are working on a project to more effectively monitor the water that comes from the aquifer and establish an early detection system for threats to water quality. The aquifer is a system of underground sand and gravel deposits that collects water like a sponge.

“It actually right now is a very clean aquifer, but it is surrounded by threats,” said William Ball, UC’s senior vice president of research.

Those include 15 superfund sites and more than 600 entities the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated as potential threats to groundwater, he said. Northern parts of the system are at constant risk from agricultural contaminants, too, he said, from the hormones, fertilizers and nitrates used in farming.

That’s a large part of the reason the two universities want to collaborate, Ball said. Their goal is to develop an observatory with small, affordable real-time sensors that can detect changes in water quality and contamination.

They’re working to raise $250,000 from universities, municipal utilities and governments and other funders to start the project. The work will require drilling four deep stainless steel wells and a pumping well on land owned by the Hamilton County Park District to collect water near the point where the aquifer empties into the Ohio River. The wells will be hidden once they’re dug, with a radio tower sitting in the center that’s about 36 feet tall – high enough to stay above the 100-year flood plain.

So far, the researchers have raised about half the money they need, Ball said, and he’s confident they’ll get the remaining funds within the next two months.

The University of Dayton has not yet agreed to help fund the project, but professors there want to be part of the work, said Philip Taylor, a distinguished research scientist at UD and group leader for environmental engineering there.

“The whole idea behind it is to understand what’s in the water and the quality of the water because we want to use water as a source of economic development in the region,” Taylor said.

Technology May Have Worldwide Use

Developing the real-time sensor technology for groundwater also could be useful for utilities across the country, said Alan Vicory, a principal with the Stantec Consulting firm and president of the board of directors of Confluence, a nonprofit focused on water technology in the region.

“Most of the drinking water systems in this country use ground water,” Vicory said.

Both Ball and Taylor sit on the Confluence board, too, and it was their work with that organization that made them interested in working together on the aquifer research project.

If Confluence succeeds in drawing more industry to the region – in part because of the area’s abundant supply of water – those businesses could impact the aquifer, Ball said.

“Right now, you’re getting great drinking water. The people who maintain your drinking water along that aquifer are doing a wonderful job,” he said. “But what happens in the future as industry wants to move into that area? If you know what the threat is, you can deal with it.”

Ball said he’s hopeful the aquifer research will lead to the creation of technology that can be used across the globe.

And closer to home, the observatory would help educate local residents about the aquifer and how important it is to the region, said Mike Ekberg, manager of water resource monitoring at the Miami Conservancy District, a river management agency.

“It’s always hard to talk to people about something that you can’t really see because it’s under the ground,” Ekberg said. “It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the aquifer and how to better manage our water resources in sustainable ways.”

Commodity That’s Taken For Granted

Ball expects the universities to raise the rest of the funding to begin drilling the project’s wells in the next few months and have them completed by the end of the year. Taylor said he thinks Wright State University and Northern Kentucky University could end up being part of the research, too.

“The whole thing is having the local universities collaborate and work together as opposed to fight for money,” Taylor said.

The project will generate revenue by charging companies to use the wells to test their own groundwater sensor designs, Ball said.

Ultimately, the universities want to dig wells along the nearly 170-mile length of the aquifer, Ball said, so that water quality can be tested as the water flows toward the Ohio River.

As more industry locates along the aquifer, Taylor said, that will become increasingly important.

“It’s going to become more and more of a commodity,” he said of the aquifer’s water supply. “Right now, it’s taken for granted.”

This story is part of a five-day series, in collaboration with WVXU, examining the region's water technology potential, which could pump billions of dollars into the local economy each year. The series airs on WVXU and is being published on WCPO.com the week of Sept. 23 through Sept. 27. Go to http://www.wcpo.com/liquid-assets for more.

Copyright 2013 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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