Water, Water … Not Really Everywhere

By Mona Malacane

About how many times do you think you wash your hands per day? Flush the toilet? Fill a cup of water or pot to cook? Ever wonder where that water comes from, or where it goes when you pour it down the drain? It’s a simple luxury that we enjoy every day (many times per day) but probably not something that many people stop to think about.

If your interest was piqued by these questions, you will soon be able to learn more about water systems through a user-friendly, interactive game created by one of our faculty. In collaboration with Dr. Shahzeen Attari from SPEA, Professor of Practice Mike Sellers is currently designing a game to educate people on how water systems work.

It’s a common misconception that when water systems have problems they are related to the quality of the water. The bigger problem actually is water quantity. Supply of water to an area that is being developed for residential, commercial, or manufacturing use must be balanced with the water that is needed by the existing population. This doesn’t sound very complicated but there is a lot more that goes into water system planning.  Mike and Shahzeen aim to explain this via a game.

“You start off with a very small well and a couple of houses, sort of Sim City-ish,” Mike explained. “As you have enough water and you’re drawing from a stream or ground water, your little community grows. But you don’t control that growth, it just grows because more people are attracted there, which means you have to increase the water supply. So maybe now you go to water tanks, or digging deeper wells, or you build a reservoir.” As the city continues to grow you have to make choices about where to build water supplying systems and how much these decisions cost. Do you dig a new well? A new water tower? Where should these systems be placed? Should you pull water from a nearby lake instead? How will this affect the surrounding areas?”

Dr. Attari was interviewed by Indiana Green Living magazine (2013) about her research on energy and water consumption.

Dr. Attari was interviewed by Indiana Green Living magazine (2013) about her research on energy and water consumption.

The game will also include challenges/issues that municipal systems deal with every day, like how to handle waste water from an upstream community. Another issue that you learn about is aging water systems and their maintenance. For instance, how to balance the budget of a growing community that needs to tap an additional water source (e.g. a new well) and also also maintain its existing underground pipes.

“The players come to understand, ‘ok here’s how I build a water system, here’s how I keep one running so I can keep my community growing,’ and also to some degree how the people who are creating and running these water systems have no control over how many people they serve.” In other words, the game gives people a look at the tangible and real issues that city planners and municipal water suppliers work through every day.

The goal of this project is first and foremost to educate and inform the general public about water systems. But Mike also hopes that through learning about these systems, people will pay more attention to water issues when they arise in their local communities and perhaps stimulate conversations during local government elections.

Shahzeen and Mike have been working together on this first version of the game since January with a grant from the Ostrom Workshop. Their plan is to continue working on it through the summer with a few of Shahzeen’s graduate students and an undergrad who is working on the art for the game. When the game is ready for release, it will be available on the web and friendly and accessible enough for people of all ages.

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