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When a sheet of rainwater cascades off a street or parking lot, a vital resource is lost. Even worse, the chemical-laden water erodes stream channels and fills them with pollution. 

Dasch Houdeshel and Austin Orr say it doesn't have to be that way. The University of Utah engineering students are figuring out how to use plants and retention features to remove contaminants from storm runoff and dampen its impact on natural water systems. At a research station at the mouth of Red Butte Canyon, they run water through test plots holding different native plant environments, measuring the volumes of mulched water they transpire and discharge, and the nutrients they absorb.

"Natural ecosystems have evolved over thousands of years to maximize production and minimize waste. How can we mimic thoses natural systems?" asked Houdeshel, a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering.

Houdeshel's work is an example of dozens of water-resource research projects around the state that will be launched or expanded by a new $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The five-year grant will establish iUTAH, an acronym for innovative Urban Transitions and Aridregion Hydro-Sustainability.

Utah State University is leading the program, with involvement from the U., Brigham Young University, Southern Utah University, Weber State University and other Utah organizations.

"The results from iUTAH will have a dramatic impact on how we understand and respond to changing water-resource availability in Utah," said a news release quoting USU President Stan Albrecht. 

The money is coming through NSF's EPSCoR program — another tricky acronym standing for Experimental Program for Stimulating Competitive Research — which also announced $20 million grants to Alaska and Wyoming.

The research projects are geared toward protecting the states' most precious asset, under increasing threat from climate change and over-allocation due to urban development.

"Freshwater resources are facing immediate and long-term challenges due to population pressure and predicted changes in the amount and timing of precipitation. Utah's population will at least double in the next two decades, with most of this growth occurring along the narrow Wasatch [Front]," wrote program coordinator Todd Crowl, an ecologist and USU professor of watershed sciences, in the grant proposal. "Growth is expected to generate a significant increase in water demand that will need to be addressed through water transfers, infrastructure investments and efficiency programs."

More than half the funding will go to the U. and USU, but a quarter of it remains unspoken for and will be made available to other groups as program leaders do more outreach. About a dozen are signed on.

"This is just a starting point," said state EPSCoR Director Rita Teutonico. "If we are successful that group will grow five-fold. We are holding those funds as stewards for institutions across the state."

While sustainability is the program's key theme, it has three distinct focus areas: natural water cycle, engineered water systems and where the natural and man-made come together, according to Diane Pataki, a biology professor leading the U.'s participation.

Researchers will build and operate new facilities for designing and measuring green infrastructure, such as the bio-retention features Houdeshel and Orr study under Chistine Pomeroy, the director of engineering. Meanwhile, hydrological observation stations will be set up at Red Butte Creek and at the Provo and Little Bear rivers.

"The plan is to expand south," said Teutonica, who also serves as USU's director of research development. "The idea is to develop models and principles that can be applied in other places."

The U. hopes to characterize the chemical contents of the runoff from Research Park's 170 acres of asphalt, all of which winds up in Red Butte Creek.

The NSF money also will establish "environmental situation rooms" for visualizing and analyzing data at the U.'s Natural History Museum of Utah and at USU, with the hope of building a community of water scholars and developing outreach programs on water quality and usage.

Houdeshel and Orr say there is much to learn before bio-filtration features can be scaled up, but they and other U. engineers are already building and testing irrigation-free gardens around campus, all funded by a special student fee to support sustainability projects.

They can be seen to the south of the Tanner Humanities Building and just to the north and east of the Meldrum Building.