UNL researcher applies expertise in aquifer recharge to arid regions

Vitaly Zlotnik
Vitaly Zlotnik

Since 2013, University of Nebraska-Lincoln hydrogeologist and Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow Vitaly Zlotnik has led efforts at UNL to develop solutions to serious water issues in the Middle East, a region rife with political conflict and environmental challenges.

He provided a keynote address at the 2016 International Water Conference at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman March 13, an interdisciplinary forum targeted to Gulf countries.

Zlotnik and other colleagues have helped UNL play an increasingly important role in research and collaboration among scientists, universities, government and others to help improve the region’s water resources management.

Water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is aggravated by population growth, political instability and lack of infrastructure for effective water resources management. The problem is further complicated by difficulties in developing research collaboration on a global scale. One thing is clear: mutually beneficial coexistence among all factions in the region will not be possible without finding water resources solutions, in addition to addressing its other critical challenges.

In 2013, several universities in the U.S. and MENA region joined efforts to solve water resources problems as part of the MENA Network of Water Centers of Excellence. These universities have vital resources and missions in common: active Water Center units and programs in water resources research, and a commitment to responsible and sustainable water use. This initiative originated from an informal organization, Friends of MENA, and was championed by UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman, who brought together academic leaders from the region for meetings in Nebraska. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) supported the initiative through grants to the participants for fostering collaborations between MENA countries and the U.S., enhancing joint research and building research capacity in MENA countries.

Leveraging the University of Nebraska’s substantial expertise in groundwater management, Zlotnik, a professor in UNL’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, launched a project in 2014 with colleagues from Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) in Oman and the University of Jordan (UJ) that focused on using treated wastewater more efficiently through Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR). Zlotnik and his colleagues modelled aquifers to better characterize their properties, assessing their water storage and recharge potential, and developing a “toolbox” for water resources evaluations using MAR.

The major source of MAR in the region is wastewater from large-capacity sewage treatment plants such as Haya Water Company in Oman and Al Samra Plant in Jordan. In addition, occasional tropical cyclones in Oman result in heavy floods, providing a water source for infiltration through dry stream beds, called wadis. Thus, hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water can be saved for irrigation and industrial needs. However, this method uses sporadic, sparse or low quality surface water resources for replenishing exhausted aquifers through the water infiltration. And social, political and economical factors weigh heavily on MAR implementation in any country. Furthermore, MAR’s technical feasibility must be assessed by hydrogeologists, engineers and economists as a starting point for any designs. This requires analyses of the aquifer properties, water savings capacity and waterlogging potential in populated areas.

Groundwater modeling facilitates MAR’s design and application, both as a diagnostic and predictive tool and for creating monitoring networks for groundwater levels. The three universities combined their resources to address similar problems in Oman and Jordan, developing groundwater modeling approaches to MAR design in countries separated by more than 1,500 miles of deserts -- and 7,700 miles from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Muscat, Oman. The team, including Zlotnik and Glenn Ledder (UNL), Ali Al-Maktoumi, Anvar Kacimov, and Osman Abdalla (SQU, Oman), Marwan Al-Raggad (UJ, Jordan), Mustafa El-Rawy (Minia University, Egypt) began collecting data, developing conceptual models, running numerical simulations and providing water resources forecasts with implications for conjunctive use of surface- and groundwater.
In Oman, models for three MAR sites were developed, including an alluvial aquifer near Al-Khoud recharge dam, coastal Jamma aquifer (located more than 100 miles northwest) recharged by flash floods and vast wetlands resulting from treated wastewater disposal by Haya Water in Muscat. In Jordan, MAR of Hummar limestone aquifer was investigated at different scenarios using combinations of TWW discharge and groundwater withdrawals at As Samra Wastewater Treatment Plant under different scenarios of the plant capacity expansion.

The project is also focused on building MENA’s capacity for research. A. Al-Maktoumi and M. Al-Raggad arranged five meetings and workshops in their universities, where all team members provided training for water resources managers, academics and students in Oman and Jordan. This participants included professional representatives from Oman’s Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources, Jordan’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation and Water Authority, the privately-owned Haya Water and other government agencies. For this purpose, UNL jointly with SQU developed a Toolbox for Training and Designing Managed Aquifer Recharge and several Guidelines for Numerical Modeling, used to train more than 30 professionals in both countries. These materials received positive feedback as they were presented at regional and international conferences attended by scientists from other Gulf countries and resulted in several papers published in international journals.

Many additional opportunities have been made possible by the project. The Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska invited MAR specialists from Oman and Jordan to its 2014 global conference in Seattle. Following this meeting, USAID extended funding to include UNL’s National Drought Mitigation Center for new research in 2015. The Water for Food Institute is also sponsoring a student trip to Jordan to study water scarcity issues and their impact on refugees March 17-27.

One of the most important results of the project has been the strong working relationships UNL has forged with water scientists from Oman, Jordan and Egypt. With participation from the Water for Food Institute and the Nebraska Water Center, opportunities for future partnerships and additional funding are promising. Certainly, such cooperation, not known previously, will assist countries in using the MAR approach, along with addressing broader issues in water resources management.

More details at: http://go.unl.edu/du5m