A multidisciplinary team, led by Dr. Amy R. Sapkota at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, has received a $10-million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop innovative, safe, and sustainable ways to irrigate food crops in variable climates.
[Photo: Dr. Amy R. Sapkota]
Awarded over a four-year period, the “CONSERVE” Center of Excellence will connect experts from the Mid-Atlantic and Southwest to identify the best nontraditional water sources and new water treatment technologies that farmers can safely use on food crops without compromising public health. The Center’s focus will be on developing water reuse solutions to safely irrigate vegetable and fruit crops that are generally consumed raw, which therefore require the highest quality, contaminant-free water during the irrigation process.
“We are running out of water in our key food production regions,” Dr. Sapkota, an environmental microbiologist, said. “We need to act now to figure out how to shift water usage patterns and successfully reuse water to sustainably and safely grow our food.”
The CONSERVE (COordinating Nontraditional Sustainable watER Use in Variable climatEs) team includes bioscientists, engineers, economists, social-behavioral scientists, law and policy experts, agricultural extension specialists, educational media developers, computer scientists, and public health experts.
“Our goal is to develop water reuse solutions that will work both in Southwest states that are already in a water shortage crisis and in Mid-Atlantic states that can work more proactively to reduce our reliance on groundwater supplies for agriculture,” Dr. Sapkota explained. “The water resource problems that CONSERVE will address in these key regions are exceptional issues that are critical to food safety and security, environmental sustainability and climate adaptation.”
CONSERVE will be centered at the University of Maryland, College Park in the School of Public Health’s Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, and include experts from UMD and beyond.
The first stage of the Center’s work is to identify, map and characterize alternative sources of water that could be reused for irrigation. Another key scope of work, to be led by team members at the University of Delaware, is to study consumer behavior and gauge the acceptability of produce grown with nontraditional sources of water. Law and policy experts will examine existing regulations around water reuse and make policy recommendations on how to safely advance water reuse on farms nationwide. CONSERVE extension specialists will train farmers to implement these systems on their farms and address specific needs.
The project also will have a significant educational component that includes the development of curricula for university classrooms and K-12 educators on water reuse, food safety, food production and environmental sustainability.
The USDA announced the first year of its plan to help communities improve water resources, including funding for the CONSERVE project, on World Water Day, March 22.