Aqua Terra Tech Enterprise in Nicaragua


By: Matt Norman, Senior Staff Writer, Michigan Tech Lode,

Michigan Tech’s Aqua Terra Tech Enterprise group has been quietly building up quite a track record since its establishment five years ago. While not as high profile as some other enterprise programs, the group is beginning to make its mark not only here at MTU but nationally - and as of this winter, even internationally. Recently the group won the national Haested Methods award, beating out teams from the country’s best universities and research organizations with their hydrologic characterization of the Silver River watershed, located near L’Anse. With that major achievement behind them, the Aqua Terra team is now directing its talents towards helping others, both right here in Michigan and thousands of miles away in rural Nicaragua. Aqua Terra Tech Website

Aqua Terra Tech is composed of fifteen students. While the majority come from the civil and environmental engineering department, there are also students from geology and biology involved. The team performs a wide range of environmental consulting functions, with the underlying aim of discovering and developing sustainable water resource solutions.

For its first project, the team received EPA funding to create a detailed hydrologic model of the Silver River watershed for use by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. The large project, which ended up modeling approximately 60 square miles of both ground and surface water, involved the use of cutting-edge modeling software, as well as a good deal of fieldwork measuring groundwater levels to test the model’s predictions. The result, according to senior team member Katy Bendal, was a thorough “knowledge of where water is coming from and where it is going to” throughout the watershed – knowledge that will be invaluable in the community’s future water usage decisions.

The modeling work on the Silver River watershed was also the basis for the team’s entry in the national Haested Methods competition. Haested Methods is a leading engineering software producer which this year put out a challenge to engineers nationwide to find the best and most innovative use of their software. The competition was a two phase process, starting with the submission of a proposal detailing the team’s plans. Based on its proposal, the Aqua Terra team was awarded the company’s software modeling package for use on the proposed project and selected to go on to the next stage of the competition.

Next, the group built on its previous work for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, extending its modeling, which had previously dealt only with groundwater, to cover the Silver River basin’s surface water. The group analyzed precipitation data, soil attributes, land use patterns, topography, stream characteristics and other parameters needed as inputs to the model using a variety of sources and remote techniques. After the surface water model was constructed and run, the results were compared with those from the existing groundwater models and historical data.

The successful project was chosen by the Haested Methods Company as the best out of dozens of submissions, and the Aqua Terra Team was awarded the full Haested Methods software package and license along with technical support as well as a $2,500 scholarship.

Not content to rest on its laurels, however, the Aqua Terra Tech enterprise team has already moved on to several ambitious new projects. While still making use of the team’s high-tech skills and knowledge, the current projects are aimed more at using these attributes to make a positive difference.

The first of these new projects is aimed at creating water security in the small Nicaraguan town of Boaco. The rural community of 34,000, located in a country that for much of its recent past was embroiled in conflict with U.S.-backed warlords and still bears the economic scars, has only one well – and that well can only be relied on to produce water five days a week. The reason, explains Bendal, is that the ground beneath the city is composed largely of rock, so that all of the groundwater is located in subsurface fractures.. When the water built up in a fracture is exhausted, it is necessary to wait until the fracture refills, a process that can take days. The solution: use the latest subsurface testing techniques to find more fractures so that the city can drop more wells.

This December, Aqua Terra sends nine of its members to Nicaragua for ten days. The team members will assess the terrain and the adequacy of its current equipment, and complete as much subsurface testing as it can. The findings will provide ample material to work on during the following semesters. The trip is made possible by a National Science Foundation grant that provides the team with the means to work on the project for the next five years, with annual trips to the project site. The Aqua Terra team hopes to complete the work for Boaco as soon as possible however. As Bendal explains, the team wants to accomplish similar projects in other areas facing water problems throughout Central America. According to Bendal, plans are in the works for projects in Guatemala and El Salvador following the Nicaraguan project’s completion.

Aqua Terra has developed a new program that aims to get a mini-enterprise started at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, with the ultimate goal of increasing interest among high schoolers, especially minority students, in the sciences and, more specifically, engineering. This summer, students from four high schools, including Cass Tech, attended a workshop at Michigan Tech. The workshop explored what an enterprise is and how to start one. The students were also involved in a number of hands-on projects including hydrologic and geophysics studies.

Currently ATT is writing and compiling a “project manual” to send to the students of Cass Tech. The project manual will include two primary sections: enterprise formation instructions and project instructions. The enterprise formation instructions will contain information on working in teams, organization, documentation, communication and safety. It will also include examples on how to hold a meeting, meeting minutes, meeting agendas, etc.

The proposed project for this year is a rain garden, an area of the ground engineered to accept the runoff water from roofs, parking lots, etc. The water that is funneled into the rain garden aids in the recharge of local aquifers, which in turn helps divert a portion of the community’s runoff from having to be treated at a wastewater treatment facility. This project manual will act as a “guide” for the students, meaning that there is a lot of room for their own decisions, design and engineering. Members of the enterprise visited Cass Tech over Thanksgiving break, spoke to the classes and helped the students get started on the rain garden project.

With recent success, the Aqua Terra Enterprise team is receiving many opportunities for possible projects. Just now though, the team has its hands full according to Bendal. Anyone interested in the Enterprise or wanting information on how to get involved, should go to the group’s Aqua Terra Tech Website Web site.

View Slide Show of December 2005 project trip


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