As the most arid state in America, Nevada has a punctuated need to develop strategies for the responsible and sustainable use of our most precious resource: water. For Lydia Peri, emerging resources program administrator at Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA) and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, a desire to ensure the longevity of our water supply has led to a number of honors over the years: In 2015, she was recognized as the University’s Young Alumna of the Year; in 2018, the American Water Works Association awarded her Pankaj Parekh Memorial Scholarship; and in 2019, she received the Reno-Tahoe YPN 20 under 40 Community Award. Now, she has earned the prestigious WEF Canham Graduate Studies Scholarship for her work on the OneWater Nevada program.
“It’s very exciting,” she said. “It’s a huge honor. With how competitive the scholarship is and how many students apply, winning really shows how successful the OneWater Nevada project has been. It means a lot to have the trust of agencies and public officials. We are working hard as a team in what has proven to be a successful collaboration.”
One Water Nevada: “The number one priority is creating safe, quality drinking water”
A multi-agency program that comes together under Peri’s leadership, OneWater Nevada is in the demonstration phases of a multi-year project designed to determine if advanced purified water can provide long-term benefits for our region’s water future.
Currently, Peri explained, the Reno-Stead Water Reclamation Facility can reclaim wastewater well enough to be used for applications like irrigating landscaping and ball fields. Through filtration and disinfection, compounds can be removed from used water. But the final step of making the water suitable for drinking requires much more intensive treatment processes.
“In cities on the coasts, filtration using reverse osmosis membranes is possible for this final step,” Peri said. “In the end, these membranes create a brine solution that can be safely put into the oceans. In Nevada, that isn’t an option for us. We need a non-membrane solution.”
Enter OneWater Nevada.
With the support of the University, TMWA, the City of Reno, the City of Sparks, Washoe County, and the Western Regional Water Commission, Peri is testing a process that could turn wastewater back into potable water. Then, to follow state regulations, this water is intended for return to the groundwater, where it could replenish underlying aquifers.
“The project could provide an option to drought-proof our water supply, providing a bank of water for years down the road,” Peri said.
Begun in 2015, OneWater Nevada will continue refining the process and analyzing the results through at least 2022.
“The number one priority is creating safe, quality drinking water,” Peri said. “All agencies and regulators want to work together for a common goal. We have been studying for years, taking steps to ensure the water is safe. We are still in the demonstration phase, and it has been very promising, but it is not going to happen tomorrow. We want to engage the public and make this an educational experience for everyone.”
While its explicit goal is securing the water supply in Nevada, the research in OneWater Nevada is gaining recognition throughout the water community. The techniques developed in the Reno-Stead Water Reclamation Facility could be used around the globe.
A Carson City native, Peri began her Nevada education in hydrology before discovering environmental engineering.
“I had friends in mechanical engineering, so that’s what I thought engineering was,” she said. “But then I discovered environmental engineering and found that it was a good way to apply what I was learning in hydrology.”
After finishing her B.S. in ecohydrology in 2011, Peri embarked on a dual M.S. program of study in hydrogeology and environmental engineering. There, she met her mentor, Krishna Pagilla, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and founder of the Nevada Water Innovation Institute. The NWII is designed specifically to increase collaboration among water resource agencies and utilities and the University to develop innovative and integrated approaches to water solutions.
“Krishna Pagilla is incredible,” she said of the Ralph E. & Rose Hoeper Engineering Professor. “He has brought so much to the University and created such a link between the University and the agencies. The NWII is key to the partnerships in OneWater Nevada. I am fortunate to be working with him on this project.”
In addition to providing support to OneWater Nevada, Pagilla offers mentorship to Peri as she advances through her Ph.D. studies. Her doctoral research is specifically focused on the final step in the process of returning reclaimed water to the aquifers as potable water.
About her work, Pagilla said, “In spite of the fact that numerous systems are in place or being planned for recharge of groundwater with reclaimed water, significant gaps exist in geochemical aspects, pathogen removal in porous media and fate of contaminants. Lydia’s focus on these aspects for her Ph.D. research and the outcomes from it will greatly benefit water deficit regions around the world and help build healthy communities.”
“She is an outstanding individual with passion for the water environment, and an excellent role model for students, young professionals and engineers.”
Pagilla continued, “She is an outstanding individual with passion for the water environment, and an excellent role model for students, young professionals and engineers.”
For those looking to follow in Peri’s footsteps, her advice is simple, “Get out in the field and get experience. See how things are really done. I had an internship with Washoe County and I got to work with people in the real world. It was way different from what I thought I would be doing. Shadow someone. Make connections. It’s a lot of fun.”