Students Explore Vast Issues Surrounding Water in New Jersey in Interdisciplinary Course

Students on a tour at the Passaic Valley Water Commission's treatment plant

On an autumn afternoon, a class of William Paterson students is learning firsthand about drinking water safety at the Passaic Valley Water Commission’s main water treatment plant in Little Falls.

As part of Water and Justice: The Past, Present, and Future of Water in New Jersey, the students are getting a rare, behind-the-scenes look at how the facility works to provide safe drinking water to more than 800,000 people in Paterson, Clifton, and Passaic, and 42 other local communities.

The course, offered this fall for the first time, was developed with funding from a grant from the National Science Foundation. It is also unique in that it is team-taught by three faculty from different disciplines within a social justice lens.

“The water we treat is coming from the Passaic River, and it’s affected by rainwater, temperature, organic material, and the wastewater treatment plants upriver that dump into the system,” says Wendy Simone, the water superintendent. “It’s a critical process.”

After learning about the complex, multi-step treatment process used to purify the water, the students get a tour of the massive facility from Zach Miranda, the plant’s supervisor of operations, where they see how the water is flushed, filtered, disinfected, and monitored around the clock.

Water1_1000x700.jpg Zach Miranda, plant supervisor of operations, shows students where ozone used to treat the water in the plant is made

“To visually see how the process works, and the delicacy of it, is invaluable,” says Max Katterman ‘24, a senior from Pine Brook majoring in computer information technology and minoring in environmental science.

This unique course offering, developed and co-taught by WP faculty members Nicole Davi, environmental science; Lilian Milanes, community and social justice studies; and Marianne Sullivan, public health, is just one outgrowth of a nearly $300,000 National Science Foundation grant awarded to the three researchers to study access to reliable and safe drinking water and recreational waterways with a focus on equity in access to these resources.

“Water is a topic that is immediately relatable to all our students, no matter what their major,” says Davi, a climate scientist who studies tree-rings to reconstruct the impact of weather, including drought and flooding, on ecosystems. “It impacts all of us.”

Sullivan, who is researching the process and policy issues surrounding lead service water line replacement in New Jersey—a major issue in the state—adds, “New Jersey is very densely populated; contaminants are a concern. By focusing on this topic, our students will gain a much deeper understanding of the issues.”

The course provides students with an in-depth look at water issues by drawing on human narratives and case studies within an environmental justice framework. Students are focusing on the prehistory and history of water in the region, the environmental and public health problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, the built environment and legacy pollution, and future vulnerabilities related to climate change and social inequality.

Milanes, an anthropologist, brings the people’s perspective to the course. “Water access and quality may not be distributed equally to communities,” she says. “Thinking about the issues this way gives student a new intersectional lens through which to apply their scientific training.”

Water2_1000x700.jpg The tour took the students throughout the vast treatment plant facility

In addition to the treatment facility field trip, students headed out on campus to obtain tree-ring core samples—which are used to create the long histories of drought in the region—“using the same methods scientists use,” says Davi. They also visited the Mahwah headquarters of the New York New Jersey Trail Conference to explore the impact of weather events on the local ecosystem, and the Great Falls in Paterson to discuss water in an urban area.

The students are also conducting research using an online data tool developed with funding from the NSF grant through which they can access in-depth information about water systems in every community in New Jersey, including data on pollution, contaminants, and violations.

For all three faculty, the course is an opportunity to introduce students to job opportunities in the field. “There are numerous careers within the water infrastructure field throughout the state,” says Sullivan, a point that was echoed on the field trip. “There is an aging workforce handling these roles, and we need our students to see the vital roles they can play.”

Lizzy Golden ’25 of North Haledon, a junior majoring in environmental science with minors in biology and environmental sustainability, says the course has affirmed her interest in working in the water industry. “I had taken a few courses about water, including hydrology and stream ecology, and it’s been great to hear about jobs in the industry through this course,” she says.

Golden adds that her home in North Haledon has well water, and she has learned a lot about the potential contaminants in water through the class. “When you have a smaller scale well, you worry about what you could be bringing in,” she says.

In addition to developing the Water and Justice course, each of the three faculty members is conducting research with students through the grant, which is part of the National Science Foundation’s Build and Broaden Program, which focuses on supporting research, offering training opportunities and creating greater research infrastructure at minority-serving institutions such as William Paterson. The team has partnered with scientists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, with WP students engaging in research on both campuses.

“Climate change impacts are already being felt across the country and a warming environment already impacts our water resources,” Davi said. “This grant provides opportunities to show public audiences and students how climate change is impacting water availability in the New Jersey/New York region, their homes, and how residents perceive their water quality and equity of water quality.”