UW-Madison Students Improve Ecuador Water Quality

CONTACT: Jeff Russell, (608) 262-7244, russell@engr.wisc.edu


MADISON – “I’ve got a project for you,” University of Wisconsin-Madison civil and environmental engineering professor Peter Bosscher told Jonathan Blanchard and Kevin Orner in August 2007, during one of the trio’s weekly gatherings at Bosscher’s home.

Blanchard and Orner, civil and environmental engineering students who graduated in May 2008, listened as their mentor described a design to fix a water pipeline serving five small communities in central Ecuador.

“The day he told us, we said, ‘Yes, we’ll do it.’ We went home and started putting together a proposal that week,” says Orner.

Along with fellow civil and environmental engineering student David Tengler, Blanchard and Orner tackled the project for their senior design capstone project, a requirement for all civil and environmental engineering seniors.

The result is a 10 kilometer-long system of PVC pipes that provides equal amounts of water to the villages of Larca Cunga, Agualongo, Panecillo, Yambiro and San Juan Loma.

Water equity is a major improvement: Before the project, the communities furthest from the mountain spring could only draw water for one hour late at night while the communities closest to the source drew an estimated 100 gallons per person per day.

“We all felt privileged to do a project that influences people’s lives in such a positive way,” says Tengler.

Implemented in Ecuador in June, the project is also a meaningful tribute to a mentor who lived to serve others. Bosscher died in November after a battle with kidney cancer.

“We’ve been so tremendously influenced by Peter and we want to keep remembering what he’s taught us,” says Blanchard. “The pipeline, which has been dubbed the Peter Bosscher Memorial Waterway, is a living memorial because it will keep providing abundant water for years to come.”

The idea for the pipeline redesign originally came from researchers at the UW-Madison Center for Global Health, who noticed local struggles with water access while conducting a field study in Ecuador. Sensing that an engineering solution was necessary, Curtis Johnson, a professor emeritus of pharmacy and medicine, invited Bosscher to survey the system. Lori DiPrete Brown, the Center for Global Health assistant director, worked with Bosscher in the field and stayed connected with the community. She also oriented the students.

Bosscher was the adviser for the UW-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a nonprofit organization that designs and implements sustainable engineering projects in foreign countries. Blanchard, Orner and Tengler were active members of Engineers Without Borders (EWB); Blanchard and Orner even led a project to construct a sewer pipeline in El Salvador in January.

Their EWB connections also led them to Tom Siebers, a civil and environmental alumnus and retired engineer who acted as a resource and mentor for the students.

“I enjoyed it tremendously,” says Siebers. “You can purchase a vacation to another country, but you only see it from a distance. This enabled us to live and work with people who could touch you and be touched by you.”

Other alumni and industry contacts were involved with the project by way of funding. The Civil and Environmental Visiting Committee financed the project, which cost $12,500.

“The board saw a legitimate need and saw the passion of the students,” says Jeffrey Russell, civil and environmental engineering professor and chair. “When our alumni and industry partners are asked to help, they respond, especially when you articulate how your plan is going to make a difference.”

In March, Orner and Tengler traveled to Ecuador during their spring break to meet community members and gather field data. After tweaking the design for the rest of the semester, the three students and Siebers returned to Ecuador to implement the project from May 27-June 10.

Prior to the group’s arrival, the communities gathered to excavate the pipeline trenches. The Ecuadorian tradition of gathering together to work for the good of the community is known as a “minga.”

“There were women with year-old babies on their back willing to climb a kilometer uphill in bare feet to lay pipe,” recalls Orner. “That was just business as usual.”

The project had three components. First, new pipe with a wider diameter than that of the existing pipe was laid to increase the flow to the system. Next, the team added a pressure release box to prevent pipes from bursting at the low end of the system. Additionally, they installed water meters and valves to regulate the system.

Though the students originally thought two “minga” sessions would be enough to complete the project, they ended up working every day for the two-week trip. On the final day, the communities threw a celebration to thank the students for their work. The festivities included speeches, dancing and a basket of potatoes served with five roasted guinea pigs on top.

The communities also gave the students a plaque, which will hang in the civil and environmental engineering department office – a small reminder of the project’s legacy.

“Peter’s view of the role of an engineering education is it can and should be relevant and significant in a global world. He thought about big challenges and how he could make a difference,” says Russell.

Tengler now works for Hunzinger Construction Co. in Brookfield, Wis. Blanchard and Orner will continue a career in humanitarian-based engineering as graduate students in the Peace Corps master’s international program at the University of South Florida, Tampa.

“It’s one thing to talk about globalization and making a difference. It’s another thing entirely to do it,” says Russell.

For Tengler, the experience illustrated the power of an engineering education to help people.

“If other students have this kind of opportunity, it would create a whole new class of civil engineers,” he says. “You don’t realize the potential of your education until you actually start doing things.”


– Sandra Knisely, knisely@wisc.edu