“Water is central to everything. It links to all the essential elements – health, nature, food, industry, energy, urbanization, etc.,” says Dr. Soni Pradhanang, an assistant professor of hydrology and water quality in the College of Environment and Life Sciences’ Department of Geosciences.
She should know; Dr. Pradhanang has spent the past two decades studying this globally threatened natural resource. Whether she’s working on watershed systems that support millions of people in New York City or helping small-scale farmers in Nepal protect their water supply, Pradhanang has demonstrated the power of scholarly research in addressing this issue.
“Access to clean water and adequate sanitation is a growing problem for many parts of the world,” she states, adding that over one billion people are in need of clean water and 2.6 billion lack access to basic sanitation.
Pradhanang’s research in CELS has focused on protecting freshwater resources (streams, rivers, lakes, and groundwater) that can serve as a drinking water source. “If the primary water source is protected well, then the cost to treat water downstream will be significantly reduced,” Pradhanang says. She develops computer models in her research that can anticipate a wide range of scenarios in which water quantity and quality change downstream. For example, if a development were to occur within a watershed, she could predict the amount of runoff that would result from impervious surface cover.
Pradhanang has applied these watershed models to a variety of research projects including the managing of the Scituate Reservoir to reduce serious flooding downstream. “The 2010 March flood had some devastating outcomes,” Pradhanang says of the flood that caused millions of dollars of widespread damage throughout the state of Rhode Island. She shares some of those research tools with students in the Geospatial Watershed Modeling course she teaches at URI.
Much of Pradhanang’s research in CELS is reflective of her past work. She previously worked as a post-doctoral researcher with the City University of New York on New York City Department of Environmental Protection funded research where she used similar water quality modeling techniques for different reservoirs that provide drinking water to New York City. “Having the responsibility of modeling this vast watershed system that serves water for more than nine million people was stressful for sure, but it came with prestige, life-time experience, and opportunity,” says Pradhanang. Through her research, the city is able to implement better management strategies to avoid source water pollution, potentially saving billions of dollars on water filtration.
Pradhanang is also applying her expertise in Nepal where she helps small-scale village farmers manage their water resources in the face of climate change through a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. “They are small livestock farmers with very little land holdings and they have to travel very far to get water,” she explains. Through devising strategies with the farmers, Pradhanang is able to help ensure that the livestock they depend on are protected against climate change hazards.
Along with the work she is doing in Nepal, Pradhanang is always developing new research projects for her work with CELS. Last year she started an outreach-oriented project where she installed floating wetlands around URI. The floating wetlands function as a type of onsite treatment for small ponds.
She hopes her research will help improve water policies by informing the decision-making process. However, she also recognizes the importance of effectively communicating her science to various stakeholders. It is something she stresses to undergraduate and graduate students at URI who are pursuing research. “Communicate your research, not just to your science peers, but to the general public,” Pradhanang offers in advice. “Develop a good communication strategy to do that. That’s extremely important because if they do not hear your science in a way they want to hear, there will be no change.”