The Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow (SWIFT), with the help of Virginia Tech, is finding solutions to replenish the groundwater supply in the overdrawn Potomac Aquifer.
Eastern Virginia faces an increasing number of environmental challenges, including Chesapeake Bay restoration and sea level rise. To address these pressures and the need for a sustainable long-term groundwater supply in the region, the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) launched the Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow (SWIFT).
SWIFT, a multiyear $2 billion managed aquifer recharge initiative, will take highly treated wastewater that would normally be discharged into surrounding rivers and put it through additional advanced water treatment to produce water that matches existing groundwater chemistry throughout eastern Virginia.
Mark Widdowson, head of the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) is co-director of the Potomac Aquifer Recharge Monitoring Laboratory (PARML) in Hampton. Widdowson, along with a number of graduate students and CEE faculty, works closely with HRSD engineers and affiliate faculty at the SWIFT Research Center in Suffolk on research related to advanced water treatment and groundwater monitoring. Virginia Tech and Old Dominion University (ODU) work in collaboration at the PARML facility.
The Potomac Aquifer is located in the Virginia coastal plain and contains trillions of gallons of pressurized water. However, groundwater withdrawals by industries, municipalities, and homeowners in eastern Virginia have depleted the groundwater supply in the aquifer, making the region vulnerable to land subsidence, sea level rise, and salt water intrusion. Groundwater in the Potomac Aquifer is a limited natural resource because the surrounding clay and bedrock prevent the water from recharging naturally.
SWIFT will enable the groundwater supply to remain productive for generations to come by repurposing wastewater into groundwater that can be used in homes and businesses. The center takes treated wastewater through an eight-step treatment and filtration process to prepare the water for recharge into the Potomac Aquifer. HRSD is currently recharging the aquifer with as much as 1 million gallons of water per day.
“Managed aquifer recharge has been used out west in California and Arizona for decades,” Widdowson said. “What makes this unique in Virginia is the deep injection and the scale of the SWIFT project. The aquifer sits 500 feet below land surface, and above the bedrock to a depth of 2,000 feet. Introducing millions of gallons of water is like refilling a water bed and replenishing the groundwater supply over time.” Recharging the aquifer reduces nutrients delivered to the Chesapeake Bay, counteracts land subsidence, and slows sea level rise, all of which benefits the region's environment and economy.
Throughout the eight-step treatment process, water is tested and analyzed by students and faculty from Virginia Tech and ODU. The universities work together to review and synthesize data to monitor the impact of the SWIFT project on the Potomac Aquifer. Students get hands-on experience sampling and analyzing SWIFT water and local groundwater, while also applying their research to advanced water treatment, water reuse technology, and groundwater sustainability.
“This is an exciting opportunity for our civil and environmental engineering students to be a part of the future,” said Widdowson. “We are at the cutting edge. Water reuse really is the future, and we expect this type of infrastructure project to be duplicated throughout the world.”
Virginia Tech researchers play a vital role in the SWIFT Lab by testing and analyzing the water to ensure that it meets human health standards and that the aquifer is protected. Students get the opportunity to influence the design and selection of treatment processes and help inform decisions related to the impact of SWIFT on the Potomac Aquifer.
While the SWIFT project focuses on replenishing the groundwater supply in eastern Virginia, it will also impact environmental health and economic growth throughout the commonwealth and in surrounding states. “The scale of this project has never been seen before,” said Widdowson. “This elevates it to national attention and is an exciting initiative for Virginia Tech and the CEE department.”
Photos by Peter Means
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