People of IonE: Kate Brauman and what’s next in water
This fall on the Twin Cities campus has been a season brimming with water. From the We Are Water MN exhibition to weekly River Walks, our minds are never far from the integral resource that runs so prominently through our lives. It might not be too surprising, then, that the same is true for IonE’s Kate Brauman, who tells us she chose to pursue water research because it made her heart happy. As the lead scientist of IonE’s Global Water Initiative, Brauman was a natural person to tap to lead one of our new IonE Impact Goals – ensuring safe and clean drinking water. Between this new leadership role at the Institute, her work with IPBES as a coordinating lead author on the global biodiversity and ecosystem services assessment, her collaboration with IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, and a recent featured interview on MPR, Kate found time to chat about her work with water, and how the key to achieving clean water may not have to do with water at all.
Let’s start with a big question: in your mind, what’s the future of water?
I think the biggest thing when we think about water is that we — and by we I mean not just academics, but society, and different societies in different ways — we can rethink how we both think about and manage water.
Sometimes water’s not about water. Some things we will always need to do with water — we will always need to drink water, we are always going to need to have water for the fish to live in if we want to go fishing, but a lot of the things we do with water we could imagine doing in different ways. So as much as I love a hot shower, what of the chinchilla and the dust bath? We use a lot of water for cleaning processes in manufacturing and personal use. What if we found different ways to clean? What if we didn’t use water for cleaning? Then that water would be available to do something else.
The reason that we use water for cleaning and for lots of things is because historically it’s been a cheap, easy, effective solution, and that made it the right solution for a different time. But with more people, more demand, and a changing climate, it’s time to think about different solutions. We need to think about advancements and other approaches. And that, to me, is really where the future is.
You’re in a unique position to explore these future possibilities as the lead for IonE’s new impact goal, safe drinking water. What does that role – and the goal – mean to you?
Well, one thing that’s really exciting is that we don’t really know what it is yet. This is a big experiment in co-creation of knowledge. What I’m really excited to do is spend some time talking to folks here at the University, especially new hires, to really understand what kind of research they’re doing and linking to that, highlighting that. Simultaneously, I want to go outside the University to try to understand what it is that communities or businesses or governments need to know – and how we can work together.
The University is never going to be a consulting service. What we’re looking to try to understand is: What are the questions, for example, that are built into your assumptions that you don’t even know you need to ask, but that we could really explore? Or: What do you assume isn’t even possible because nobody’s pushed on this yet?
I think the Energy Transition Lab is a great example of this; they’ve highlighted that energy storage is the big block. It isn’t just about “Oh, make something more efficient” – what’s getting in the way [of a sustainable energy transition] is this whole other thing. I suspect that in the water world, that will be true also.
Exciting! What do you think this uncharted territory might be?
I don’t know what that is yet! We are just starting this process, and so I’m really excited to find out. One thing that I do suspect, or that I hope, is that it might not be about water. What if instead of treating water, we found ways to grow crops that don’t get nitrogen in the water in the first place? The Forever Green Initiative is working on that already here at the U. Really understanding the problems helps us ask different questions and find different solutions.
That’s why I really like these new IonE goals. Just because what we want is clean water doesn’t necessarily mean we need to study water to get there.
The plan for these goals is to focus on the state of Minnesota – and that what we do here can have global significance. What makes Minnesota a good place to study water?
It’s definitely a great place to study water. I recently spent some time talking to Kenny Blumenfeld, who works with the Minnesota DNR as the Senior Climatologist. He said that these past six years have been the wettest six years on record for Minnesota. And what’s really interesting and important about that is that we are simultaneously facing more demand for water and potentially water shortage, and also more water and more water all at once, and potential flooding.
Nobody’s got good answers, there’s lots of different things people are doing — green infrastructure, water storage — but we’re really trying to think about reactive and different new ways. Instead of having storm events and flooding be negative, are there ways that we can actually embrace that and make it positive? There are all these new frontiers. I don’t know what the answers are, but it’s fun to think about looking into them.
You’re the water expert, so I have to ask: What is one little thing we can all do to better use our water?
If you truly wanted to have the biggest impact on your water footprint, the thing that would impact that is actually food. Food is usually not something that we think of as being about water, unless we’re washing an apple or drinking a glass of water with dinner, but actually, everything we eat had to be grown somewhere and needed water. Meat has the biggest water impact by far of all the things that we eat. On the other hand, not all meat is the same. There’s a lot of context in this, but understanding where our food comes from and what the water impact is of that affects things that we can do in terms of our own water footprint.
The other thing is your yard. If you think about all the things you do with water in your house, it may feel like flushing the toilet or taking a shower uses a lot of water, but you want to think about where that water goes. We potentially put nasty things in that water, but we didn’t actually use up that much of the water. The place where we use a lot of water that does not end up getting recycled back into the system is in our yards. So if you’re watering your yard, you’re actually putting a lot of water into the ground that’s then evaporating. You might want to think about planting a different kind of grass or using something instead of grass so you use less water.
Grace Becker is the Communications Assistant at IonE and an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, where she studies strategic communication, sustainability, and Spanish.