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USU Water Research Soars to New Heights

Thursday, May. 08, 2008

Sunrise Session, Stan Albrecht, Mac McKee

Utah State University President Stan Albrecht and Utah Water Research Laboratory Director Mac McKee at the Sunrise Session.

Americans consume more than 3.5 billion gallons of water every day to run their households, and it’s no surprise there is an increasing number of critical water-related problems.

The director of the Utah Water Research Laboratory at Utah State University, Mac McKee, presented “Exciting Projects at the Utah Water Research Laboratory,” as part of the USU Sunrise Session series Friday, April 25, in Salt Lake City.
Researchers at the UWRL are currently working on more than 300 contract projects from around the world in an effort to deal with water issues. 
“There are three main water problems arid communities such as Utah and others worldwide need to address,” McKee said. “Water per person is decreasing, there is an increase in diversification of water uses and there is a stronger demand from stakeholders to play a role in the decision-making process.”  
The UWRL aims to get in front of these problems and develop solutions before they get out of hand, McKee said.
McKee discussed three projects at the Sunrise Session, including phosphorus management for the Little Bear River, ion-specific salinity probes and the UWRL “air force,” a collection of small, unmanned planes used to gather images and other data about the ground below.
The Little Bear River in northern Utah is already in violation of Environmental Protection Agency standards. If this situation is not addressed, federal and state water quality enforcement agencies could require an estimated $200 million treatment plant to meet EPA standards, McKee said. 
“We’ve been able to establish the capacity to measure stream water quality and flow in real-time and use these data in conjunction with state-of-the-art models to enhance our understanding of phosphorus in the watershed and, as a result, provide better information for management,” McKee said. “With this information, the cost to meet EPA standards should be a fraction of the estimated $200 million conventional treatment approach.” 
The presence of salt in rivers is another problem and causes hundreds of millions of dollars in damage yearly. The salt comes in many forms, making it difficult to measure. 
“If we can’t measure the salt levels, we can’t manage the problem,” he said.
A solution to this problem comes in the form of ion-specific salinity probes. These patented probes allow researchers at the UWRL to more accurately measure six different salt ions in streams and rivers so they can develop the best management practices.   
The probes have the potential to be used for other purposes such as measuring bacterial content as well.
The UWRL “air force” is a collection of unmanned autonomous vehicles equipped with small cameras, a Global Positioning System, a computer and sensors for aircraft speed, altitude, pitch, yaw and roll to fly the aircraft without human intervention and to control the collection of visual images and other data. The information collected from these UAVs can be combined with data from other sources (such as satellite imagery and data from on-ground soil moisture probes) and used to forecast soil moisture up to seven days in advance. It can also help canal and reservoir operators predict water demand a week in advance, providing for a more efficient use of water.
The imagery from the UAVs can be collected frequently and made available almost immediately. The images are clearer and the data can be collected at a lower cost than with traditional aircraft or satellites.
People from all over the world seek out the UWRL to conduct studies because of its expert engineers and scientists and state-of-the-art equipment. The UWRL was created in 1959, making it the oldest of the 54 university-based water research centers in the country. It is also one of the largest centers in terms of the volume of research done, with annual research expenditures around $9 million.
USU’s “Sunrise Sessions” is a breakfast lecture series designed to highlight timely and cutting-edge research conducted at Utah State University. The lecture is sponsored by Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Utah.
For more information about the Sunrise Sessions visit its Web site. For more information about the UWRL and its research, visit its Web site or contact McKee at 435-797-3188 or

Writer: Annalisa Fox, 435-797-1429,

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