Events & Media

$1.25 Million Gift Supports Urban Water Quality Research

Santa Barbara, Calif. – The Bren School has received a gift of $1.25 million from Henry H. Wheeler, Jr.  to support research on the urban water environment conducted by Bren School professor Patricia Holden.

“We are at a time when protecting water resources is more critical than ever,” says Bren School dean, Steve Gaines. “It is therefore exciting to receive this generous gift to support Trish Holden’s groundbreaking work, which is important to the health of humans and the environment.”

Mr. Wheeler, whose family founded the Park Water Company in Downey, California, has spent decades in the water industry. In recent years, he has taken a keen interest in decaying underground urban water infrastructure and possible links to disease.

“Coming from the water business, I know how we worry about underground infrastructure,” he says. “People tend to take it for granted. They think it’s down there and it’s OK, but it’s not. Leaking sewer pipes are a huge problem, and it’s not just a local problem; it’s ubiquitous.

 “We need to know if water is a factor in disease or not, and if it is, we need to remediate it,” he adds. “That requires good science, and Dr. Holden and the Bren School are up to the task. I wanted to support her and her team, because they’re the boots on the ground in those efforts.”

Mr. Wheeler discovered Dr. Holden in a report covering research that she and her group had done in the City of Santa Barbara, using various DNA-based and other approaches to identify leaking sewer pipes as a source of human pathogens that can contaminate storm drains, coastal ocean waters, and, potentially, groundwater.

“Aside from Dr. Holden’s being extremely astute and a very nice person, I was struck by the fact that she is not only a world-class microbiologist, but also a licensed professional civil engineer,” said Mr. Wheeler. “That’s perfect. You often get one specialist or the other but you don’t get a ‘two-for-one sale.’”

“I’m immensely grateful for Mr. Wheeler’s extraordinary gift,” said Dr. Holden. “I see a role for our science in bringing more attention to the issue of degraded ‘sanitary’ infrastructure, with a main goal of informing solutions to the problem.”

She intends to use the funding initially to learn more about contaminants.

“We want to characterize multi-contaminant distribution and attenuation patterns between surface regions (around sewers) and groundwater, and to learn how the subsurface can be managed to reduce multi-contaminants,” she says, adding, “Sewage today contains not only fecal indicator bacteria, nutrients, and oxygen-depleting compounds, but also pharmaceuticals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, metals, nanomaterials, and various pathogens. We need to better understand how today’s complex wastewater streams, leaking from aging infrastructure into the urban environment, decay, persist, and affect water quality, as well as other natural environmental processes that can actually protect groundwater.

 “Worldwide, there is mounting evidence that decaying infrastructures are releasing wastewater, which then migrates into groundwater or surface water,” Professor Holden adds. “If, as expected, freshwater resources become increasingly scarce as climate varies and urban demands for water increase, then managing wastewater to protect ground- and surface-water resources will become even more critical. Our research is about understanding the problems in more detail, and discovering realistic solutions.”