Published: April 14, 2021 By

“If you have a water need, there’s a creative answer that we can find.”

Professor Sherri Cook is researching solutions for better wastewater treatment and reuse.

An assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, Cook is focused on water and sanitation. She has been honored by the National Science Foundation with a CAREER Award, a five-year, $510,000 grant to study water treatment technologies and build models to help local governments and water operators improve their infrastructure and water quality.

Her work is particularly concentrated on water reuse, an important focus as regions face increasing demands for water in the face of finite supplies. It is an area of active research for Cook and others on campus through the Environmental Engineering Water Reuse Program.

She understands the concept of reusing wastewater makes many people uncomfortable, but it does not necessarily mean the water is for drinking – there are many applications.

Treated wastewater is used for agriculture and irrigation in many places across America. Here in Boulder, the Williams Village residence halls also recycle shower and sink water, so-called “graywater,” to flush toilets.

“There’s so much more we can get out of wastewater,” Cook said. “We’re not seeing a widespread use even though we have widespread needs. Why waste it? We should be using it.”

Cook will use her CAREER award to investigate existing and new water reuse technologies to build detailed simulation models for water utilities.

“This starts with developing a new process model; we don’t really have one for water reuse. I’m interested in the triple bottom line – the social, environmental and economic impacts,” she said. “We’re looking at how well different treatment technologies can perform. That will be thousands of simulations for performance, use, costs, how it changes if the water going in has different quality levels.”

Water treatment is something many Americans think little about. But governments and water operators face a dizzying array of decisions when planning water plant upgrades and have little comparative research to rely on.

“You have clients with different needs and different qualities of data, but they still have to make a choice. These are wicked problems where the solution seems almost unimaginable,” Cook said. “But, there are so many options -- conventional treatment, biological filtration, activated carbon, reverse osmosis – we just need a model to help select and tailor the most sustainable options to your needs.”

Increasing water reuse in a community can save utility managers and engineers from needing to find and pay for new faraway sources of freshwater that must be pumped long distances, a situation that has long plagued the Mountain West.

The NSF CAREER Award program is not only about research. It also aims to grow honorees as educators. Part of Cook’s grant will be used to develop teaching modules to help engineering students and stakeholders better understand uncertainty and manage tradeoffs, a critical issue in making large infrastructure decisions.

“I’m really excited. This project is a lot of research and teaching and outside engagement,” Cook said. “It really is about developing your career. Being at CU Boulder, with so many great collaborators, has really allowed me to do this; I don’t know if I would have been able to do this if I were anywhere else.”