Aditi Bhaskar receives NSF CAREER award to study urban irrigation, diversify water workforce

Aditi Bhaskar, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, has been selected for the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious early-career faculty award. She was recognized with a CAREER award for her potential to serve as an academic role model in research and education and to lead advances in her field.

Connecting urban irrigation efficiency to streamflow

Bhaskar will use her CAREER funding to find out to what extent lawn irrigation contributes to streamflow in semi-arid urban watersheds and determine the effects of reduced urban irrigation.

“Reducing urban irrigation could play a critical role in achieving water security and sustainability in river basins where water is scarce,” Bhaskar stated in her proposal.

This is particularly important along the Front Range of Colorado, where water supply is lagging behind the growing demand, and the majority of water used on residential properties goes to irrigating landscapes and lawns.

“There’s this limited water supply and increasing demand as more people move to cities and urban areas on the Front Range,” Bhaskar said.

We have the means to reduce urban irrigation by using efficient irrigation systems or converting lawns through xeriscaping or impervious surfaces, but we don’t know exactly how this will affect streamflow. Some fear conservation could dry out our urban streams and harm the water rights of downstream users.

Bhaskar’s project will quantify the impacts of current and more efficient irrigation practices on streamflow. Her team will take advantage of a natural tracer in Denver’s municipal water supply.

Because Denver’s tap water comes from high-elevation mountain streams, it has a different isotopic signature than the local precipitation and groundwater. By watching for this signature, they will be able to determine how much irrigation water is reaching streams. Then they will use modeling to predict how changing practices would affect groundwater recharge and runoff.

The growing urban communities on the Front Range affect the agricultural communities to the east, and Bhaskar wants to better understand those connections and support conservation practices with data. Ultimately, her goal is to help semi-arid communities flourish with less water.

Diversifying the water workforce

Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by lower drinking water quality and other environmental disservices, in part because of the underrepresentation of people of color in the water workforce. The education part of Bhaskar’s proposal addresses this disparity by working to diversify the urban water workforce to be more reflective of the communities served.

She will work with the Colorado Water Center’s Student Fellows program to mentor students of color interested in water careers. She also will work with undergraduate students on water research and crowd-sourced stream tracking.

Additionally, Bhaskar’s CAREER award will enable development of equity-focused teaching materials for water-related undergraduate courses, in collaboration with Associate Professor Rebecca Atadero. Bhaskar and Atadero aim to incorporate more discussion on the social responsibility of engineering decisions and how civil and environmental engineering are closely tied to people.

“How can we be of service to people and make sure our decisions are not serving people differentially based on their income or race, for example,” Bhaskar said.