MOSCOW, Idaho — Manure, byproducts of food processing, and other agricultural and aquacultural materials are often considered to be waste. However, the University of Idaho Center for Resilient Communities (CRC), in collaboration with industries across the state, is beginning a project to help Idaho view and use these nutrients as a resource.
The National Science Foundation awarded the CRC nearly $3 million over the next three years to support the ReFEWS project, which will map Idaho’s opportunities for managing nutrients across landscapes for improved resilience in food, energy and water systems, known as FEWS. The project will focus on the Upper Snake River Watershed, which includes Twin Falls, Pocatello, Idaho Falls and the surrounding counties, but also will incorporate other sites across Idaho with an eye to improving community and human well-being.
“I’m very pleased that the University of Idaho’s Center for Resilient Communities has been selected to receive this grant to invest in renewable energy and sustainability projects,” said U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho. “As a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, I have long supported and understand the need for Idaho’s ReFEWS research. This grant will help strengthen our region’s energy security and will revitalize the way we conserve water.”
Reclaiming and reusing nutrients can benefit Idaho businesses by giving them new sources of profit and reducing the state’s dependence on external resources, said Lilian Alessa, the lead researcher for ReFEWS, UI President’s Professor and co-director of the CRC. The CRC is a statewide, interdisciplinary research group and think-tank housed in the UI College of Art and Architecture.
“For example, waste is a raw material. It’s something that we typically dispose of, but we’re throwing money out when we do that,” Alessa said. “We have technologies that we’re developing here in Idaho to reuse nutrients in waste. Those technologies aren’t new, but figuring out how they best fit into a whole social-ecological system on a landscape scale is. We have a systematic and collaborative approach to increasing resilience in the FEW system for Idaho and, more broadly, the American West, and this project is a demonstration on how this can be scaled up to create strong and sustainable economies in both rural and urban communities.”
To accomplish this, Alessa is taking lessons learned from her previous work on sustainable agriculture in extreme and arid environments and applying them to this project. Her team connects some of the nation’s leaders in engineering, energy and water systems modeling, including Ron Fisher, homeland security division director at Idaho National Laboratory (INL).
"It is great news that the University of Idaho's Center for Resilient Communities was selected to receive a grant in renewable energy and sustainability," Fisher said. "The CRC offers a unique interdisciplinary approach that holistically considers social, economic and environmental issues that affect the resilience of communities in Idaho and the western United States. Grants like these are also crucial in furthering the collaboration between UI and INL, fostering information sharing, technical exchanges and integrated research."
In response to the state’s needs, the ReFEWS researchers will collaboratively create an integrated, systems-based technology blueprint for Idaho, which will note strategic opportunities for incorporating new technologies into existing systems and improving how technologies work together.
The blueprint will be developed with the users themselves, building on existing university-industry relationships involving both large corporations and small local businesses. It will consider the whole ecosystem, such as linking to CRC-affiliated programs in fire science, to considering how sustainable food, water and energy systems in Idaho could, for example, affect salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest.
ReFEWS will build on existing university-industry relationships, involving large corporations and small local businesses in the mapping and blueprint processes. CRC researchers also will study technological, social and ecological questions related to reuse in food, energy and water systems, inviting researchers across Idaho to add their expertise.
“This prestigious NSF award provides an exciting opportunity for Idaho to lead innovative and cross-cutting science in partnership with the communities and stakeholders where it can make a difference,” said Andrew Kliskey, another lead researcher on the project, CRC co-director and professor in the College of Natural Resources.
This project also leverages interdisciplinary collaboration across the university — along with the College of Natural Resources and the College of Art and Architecture, other team members are from the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Engineering and Science.
“Idaho is a small state with a big impact on the nation,” Alessa said. “The University of Idaho is leading the way in ensuring that we’re also having an even bigger impact on creating solutions for overall ecosystem services such as food production, water conservation and access to energy. This is part of ensuring our nation’s overall security and well-being. It will take all of us, one Idaho, to accomplish this.”
“The ReFEWS project is a significant piece of the University of Idaho’s cross-disciplinary effort to address the needs of Idaho’s people and industries, helping sustain our state into the future,” said Janet Nelson, vice president of Research and Economic Development. “We will continue pursuing projects that support Idaho’s food, water and energy systems.”