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Sustainability at IIHR: Evolving with the Times

by Cornelia F. Mutel
Plumbing research at IIHR in the 1930s helped keep the institute alive through the Great Depression.

Plumbing research at IIHR in the 1930s helped keep the institute alive through the Great Depression.

Sustainability. The word, as commonly used, focuses on maintaining life and function today, without compromising the potential of future generations or ecosystems. But it’s a word with many meanings, a word that is typically defined by the focus of the speaker and his or her priorities.

At IIHR, sustainability considers the purity and flow of water, a substance crucial to all life. About two-thirds of the human body is water, and nearly three-quarters of our planet is covered by water. Water is elementary to plant growth and food production. Without pure water in the right places at the right time, life systems flounder and fail.

IIHR’s research on water sustainability began shortly after the Hydraulics Laboratory first opened its doors, long before “sustainability” became a buzzword. But research here has evolved along with the times.

Early Sustainability Initiatives

Much of IIHR’s research has considered guaranteeing water’s healthy flow patterns. In the 1920s, for example, Model T Fords were making automobiles accessible to middle-class citizens, and highways were cropping up in response, but haphazardly and without much planning. Thus the federal government started to regulate and standardize road-building. But what was to be done about the water that flooded and washed out roadways, making them unusable? This question brought some of the first research funding to the laboratory. It seemed clear that flowing water should be transmitted through culverts underneath the new highways, but should the culverts be round or square, rough or corrugated, concrete or clay or metal? The U.S. Bureau of Roads answered these questions by performing more than 3,000 culvert tests in the laboratory’s flume next to the Iowa River. This research led to publication of the lab’s first research bulletin.

Plumbing research at IIHR in the 1930s.

Plumbing research at IIHR in the 1930s.

Other early sustainability initiatives considered water quality. Indoor plumbing was becoming more common in America in the early 1900s. But that didn’t mean that piped water supplies delivered clean water. Plumbing fixtures sometimes sported pollution-spreading cross connections that pulled wastewater into incoming pipes, co-mingling drinking water and sewage. Improperly designed or poorly constructed plumbing systems were commonplace enough to draw significant funding to IIHR in the late 1930s and 1940s, when the Hydraulics Laboratory became the official testing center of the National Plumbing Laboratory. Studies were performed on the prevention of back-siphonage, the hydraulics of flush toilets, the intrusion of sewer gas, and similar subjects. Concerns about safe indoor plumbing systems led IIHR researchers to lecture to medical students about plumbing dangers and sanitation and to make educational films on the subject.

New Concerns, New Research

More recent examples of IIHR’s water-sustainability research include modern water-pollution projects. These were initiated because of the increasing environmental concerns of the late 1960s and 1970s. Before then, water-pollution regulations did not consider, for example, thermal pollution created when steam-electric power plants dumped heated wastewater into rivers or lakes. That wastewater could raise the temperature of natural waterways by many degrees, but little thought was given to the consequences of heated water on fish and other life. IIHR was involved in remediating this problem from the late 1960s into the 1980s, when it modeled power-plant thermal outfalls, designed better water-discharge systems, and studied the operation of cooling towers and other closed-circuit cooling systems that recirculated and reused heated waters.

In another effort, IIHR developed dropshafts to carry wastewater into voluminous underground storage caverns underneath large cities. These caverns were used when downpours from storms overwhelmed sewage-treatment plants; with the caverns, excess wastewater could be held and withdrawn for processing bit by bit, rather than dumped untreated into natural waters. IIHR’s dropshafts are now utilized by major cities around the world.

Sustaining the Web of Life

Sustainable water flows are as crucial to the planet’s millions of plant and animal species as they are to humans. This recognition has drawn IIHR researchers into one of the largest initiatives of recent years: designing fish passage systems for the Columbia River and its tributaries, whose flows are interrupted by numerous massive electric-generating dams. Without IIHR’s highly successful fishways now in operation on these dams, salmon would be unable to navigate to and from their up-river spawning grounds to the ocean, where they live most of their lives. The salmon could not reproduce successfully, and the web of life would be irreversibly weakened.

Early research on fish passage at dams began in the 1930s with experimental fish ladders.

Early research on fish passage at dams began in the 1930s with experimental fish ladders.

IIHR has been carrying out Columbia River fish passage research since the early 1980s. But fish passage studies began at IIHR in the 1930s, when Iowa’s fish were being similarly hampered by the state’s many low-head dams that had been constructed in the 1800s in conjunction with grain and lumber mills. The dams seriously interfered with seasonal fish migrations and threatened the survival of some species. In response, IIHR’s staff tested diverse full-scale and small-scale experimental fish ladders in the lab’s flumes, coincidentally recording comments on the migration habits of more than a dozen fish species.

Today, as throughout human history, sustainable water systems may be the most elementary requirement of life on earth. The search for sustainability is now intensified by the planet’s large human population – seven-plus-billion and growing – and by the emerging pressures of climate change and all it infers – moister air, increasingly heavy precipitation and larger storms, ocean acidification, shrinking clean-water supplies and shriveling lakes, dwindling irrigation reservoirs, and the like. In response, IIHR is broadening its sustainability focus through both the Iowa Flood Center and through the Water Sustainability Initiative.

Sustainability. It’s a word that looks into the distant future, considers the broad possibilities, and responds. It’s a word that describes what IIHR has done now for nearly a century and one that increasingly guides where we will go in future years. It’s a word whose meaning evolves with the times and a concept that is now more crucial than ever.

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Last modified on June 29th, 2015
Posted on June 6th, 2014

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