An innovative wastewater treatment system designed by Washington State University civil engineering students was recently showcased at a national environmental design contest.

Seniors Jered Newcomb, Morgan Porter, Daryl Epstein, and William Gillen designed a system to remove phosphorus from the runoff from concentrated animal feedlot operations for the Waste-management Education Research Consortium (WERC) Environmental Design Contest.

The competition, held at New Mexico State University, focuses on solving environmental challenges. This was the first time a team from WSU has participated in the competition.

WSU team with their wastewater treatment system at the WERC design contest in New Mexico.

The four students were inspired by a class that they took on environmental measurements, where they learned how to measure phosphate in the environment.

“This work is very relevant to protecting the waterways in our state,” said Porter.

As cattle feeding operations and dairy farms across the nation grow bigger, large amounts of manure are generated every day, which are often put into lagoons up to 15 feet deep. The runoff from the massive storage piles, containing harmful pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus, routinely seeps out of the feedlots and finds itself in ground and surface water systems. When such pollutants reach water bodies, they can induce excessive growth of algae, called algae blooms. This can result in oxygen depletion in the water body, killing off fish and seagrass and diminishing essential fish habitats.

The system designed by the students consists of a long column of sand coated with a nitrate of iron, through which wastewater can pass.

“The iron in the system absorbs the phosphorus in the runoff, avoiding potential harm to the environment and allowing the phosphorus to be re-used as fertilizer,” said Newcomb.

Sand and iron-based wastewater treatment system created by the students.

Coached by faculty members Amanda Hohner and Richard Watts, and PhD candidate Mehnaz Shams, the students tested their design at the competition and gave an oral and poster presentation.

For Newcomb, who is interested in a career in hazardous waste treatment, the event was a great place to gain knowledge and to network with like-minded peers.

“It was amazing to be surrounded by a lot of really smart people who were passionate about the environment,” he said.

“We got out our pencils and paper and got our hands dirty actually designing, building and testing our system,” said Epstein. “We learned how to troubleshoot a fully functioning treatment system, which is a crucial skill to have when we start our careers in industry,” said Porter.

The team’s trip to New Mexico and participation in the competition was funded in part by James H. Clark (’75 B.S. Civil Engr.; ’76 M.S., Civil Engr), a fellow and past president of the Water Environment Federation.