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Water Quality Research Foundation Funds Kumpel to Compare Sustainability of Water Treatment Facilities in Smaller U.S. Communities

Emily Kumpel

Emily Kumpel

Assistant Professor Dr. Emily Kumpel of the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department has received a two-year, $143,872 grant from the Water Quality Research Foundation (WQRF) to compare the human, environmental, and economic impacts of various drinking-water treatment systems in smaller communities throughout the United States. Kumpel’s WQRF research will specifically compare larger, more centralized water-treatment systems versus smaller, more selective water-treatment devices by analyzing their relative sustainability for communities of fewer than 1,000 people.

With Kumpel serving as the principal investigator for the project, the co-principal investigators are CEE Professor Dr. David A. Reckhow and CEE Department Head Dr. John E. Tobiason, P.E.

As the WQRF summarizes Kumpel’s project, “This study will utilize real-world data to compare the sustainability, defined as the human, environmental, and economic impacts, of centralized drinking water treatment to residential POU/POE (Point-of-Use & Point-of-Entry Water Purification Systems) in small community water systems in the United States. Research results will be used by the industry to identify and understand in which contexts POU/POE might yield the most benefits when used by small communities for compliance needs.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “POU and POE treatment devices rely on many of the same treatment technologies that have been used in central treatment plants. However, while central treatment plants treat all water distributed to consumers to the same level, POU and POE treatment devices are designed to treat only a portion of the total flow.” 

Ultimately, says the EPA, POU or POE treatment devices could be an option for smaller water systems in which central treatment is not affordable, a possibility being studied by Kumpel.

According to Kumpel, small community water systems are faced with many challenges in maintaining and delivering water that meets regulatory standards, especially the Safe Drinking Water Act. For small, and particularly very small, systems, she says, there might be a point at which installing point-of-use or point-of-entry devices at individual households or buildings is a more feasible option that provides the same benefits with fewer economic, human, or environmental costs as compared to investments in the centralized water system.

“The goal of the [WQRF] research,” she says, “is to evaluate these tradeoffs between investments in centralized systems as compared to POU/POE systems through case studies of communities faced by these challenges.”

Kumpel says that “Using case studies of real communities faced by these challenges, we hope to identify in what contexts and circumstances POU/POE systems may provide greater…benefits than upgrades to centralized systems.”

Kumpel’s WQRF research addresses these benefits through selecting case-study community water systems and then collecting data to model the human, economic, and environmental costs of upgrading a centralized system to meet standards as compared to implementing POU/POE systems. In the process, Kumpel will focus on systems with fewer than 500 people, where possible, with a maximum of 1,000 in EPA Regions 1, 5, 6, and 9.

As Kumpel says, “Human impacts will be measured as the carcinogenic and non-carcinogen risks to health from extended timelines to implement changes, and potential acceptability of centralized vs POU/POE systems will be given context through nationally-available survey data.”

Kumpel goes on to say that “Economic costs will be calculated using a life-cycle costing approach to estimate costs over the entire life cycle of both upgrades from construction through operation, using data from manufacturers or bid documents from similar projects.”

Finally, Kumpel says, “Environmental impacts will be estimated through a hybrid process and economic input-output model approach focused on the specific upgrade that would be required.”

The practical application of Kumpel’s research, as she explains, is that it can be used by the POU/POE industry to identify and understand exactly how targeted interventions might yield the most benefits to communities, which can also use her study to understand how to best invest in providing safe water for their citizens.

“Furthermore,” Kumpel concludes, “the methods proposed and developed through this proposal can be replicated and used by the POU/POE industry, communities, and state agencies to weigh tradeoffs when considering how to best support struggling small community water systems.”

Kumpel heads the Water, Sanitation, and Development Research Group @UMass. As she explains about her lab, “We conduct research using interdisciplinary approaches to understand the complex engineered, environmental, and human systems to enable the provision of safe, reliable, and sustainable drinking water and sanitation services.” (July 2020)