Water Solutions

Rosa Raudales in greenhouse
Photo: Kara Bonsack

Irrigation and plant pathogens, or infectious organisms, in water are recurring themes for Rosa Raudales, an Assistant Professor of Horticulture and Greenhouse Extension Specialist. Rosa’s first job was on a plantain irrigation project in Honduras. As an undergraduate, her thesis focused on pathogens in hydroponic systems, where plants are grown in a soilless system. Rosa researched biological controls, water treatments, and plant pathogen controls during her graduate studies.

At UConn, Rosa builds off the foundation she created; with applied research focusing on using low-quality water for irrigation, and developing management strategies to control microbes and unwanted chemicals in irrigation water. A holistic, multidisciplinary approach addressing biological, chemical and physical parameters of water quality is developed for each project. Rosa then delivers science-based information to growers, solving plant health and horticulture issues with efficient and sustainable practices.

An integrated research team from the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR) is partnering with faculty from the School of Engineering on a project called Smart-Resource Grids: Exploring Technical Solutions to Grand Challenges at the Water-Energy-Food Nexus. The project is funded through the UConn Office of the Provost.

Richard McAvoy, Department Head of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture is project director. Rosa is one of 14 faculty members on the project, and water thrust co-leader with Tim Vadas from the School of Engineering. By building a smart-resource micro grid on the Storrs campus, researchers can study how water, food, and energy relate to one another and find synergistic relationships.

The UConn grant funds are developing infrastructure that demonstrates how wastewater can sustain agriculture. Reclaimed water will be used for irrigation and bio-solids from the wastewater will be used to produce energy. A gasifier owned by the School of Engineering will generate energy from the bio-solids in the form of natural gas. The gas can then be used to generate heat or electricity for use in the greenhouse, or the energy can be used someplace else where demand is needed on the grid.

Connecticut regulations indicate that reclaimed water cannot touch the soil. Greenhouses can have closed-loop irrigation systems, which have zero runoff. Using reclaimed water conserves resources and allows treated water to serve a purpose.

“The broader application is in becoming more efficient on how we utilize resources,” Rosa says. “Using what is considered waste in other industries, as an agricultural input, puts less pressure on natural resources. We will also produce energy from solid-waste. Our team added the food component with the idea of designing the integrated cities of the future, where nothing is wasted. The project will give cities that already treat wastewater an option on how to use it safely, while growing food locally.”

Space and resources are limited in many areas, including food deserts, but there is often a water treatment facility. Food could be grown in these areas using technology and efficiencies developed by the UConn team. Economists on the project are researching feasibility and practical application.

“My role on this project is to evaluate how to grow crops effectively by balancing nutrition and preventing biofouling on the pipes,” Rosa mentions. “The outreach component consists on understanding how to facilitate adoption of our system and developing a system that is feasible for cities to integrate.”

The USDA Critical Agricultural Research and Extension (CARE) Project is a $200,000 grant. Rosa is collaborating with Jeff McCutcheon from the School of Engineering, and Richard McAvoy and Michael O’Neill of CAHNR. The project looks at why horticultural farms are not using low quality water sources, and barriers for adoption (sidebar, at right).

Water quantity is a national priority. The Agricultural Water Security grant is co-sponsored by the Connecticut Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and UConn Extension. Rosa collaborates with Michael O’Neill, Michael Dietz, and Angie Murdukhayeva of UConn Extension. Associate Dean Michael O’Neill is project director.

The RCPP project will identify how much water agriculture uses, and risks of different operations in the event of severe drought. During the first phase, the team is looking at how water is being used at operations. The second phase will develop drought management plans for different types of operations through technical support and financial assistance.

Rosa is applying for more grants to build off her current research. One thing is certain, as she continues to tie research to real life, the questions related to food, security, water conservation, and energy resources will be answered.