WE-NEED: WatEr NEEDs, availability, quality and sustainability


Project presentation

 monica riva

Monica Riva

Brian Berkowitz

Projects  Partner and Institution:

Politecnico di Milano, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Weizmann Institute of Science, Dept. of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Universidade de Aveiro (UAVR), Dept of Biology

Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (UPC), Dept. of Geotechnical Engineering and Geo-Sciences

Key words: Water Management; Risk Assessment; Emerging Contaminants; Surface- Groundwater Interaction; Multiscale characterization; Ecotoxicity
Groundwater (GW) is a major source of water supply in Europe. This natural resource is endangered by several factors, such as improper water management policies, including over-exploitation, and contamination by anthropogenic activities. Ignoring the profound consequences of GW depletion and quality deterioration is the foundation on which unsustainable water policies are built. The goal of this project is to develop new management strategies to assist in the sustainable use of two key components of the GW resource: pumping wells, used to obtain water for drinking purposes, and natural springs, typically employed for crop irrigation as well as for recreational use. We ground our activities on observations linked to two field sites in Italy. These sites are archetypal of two distinct realities and can be considered representative of diverse environmental settings and conditions of Europe-wide interest. As such, key features of our approach and techniques are resilience and adaptability, so that the approach can be readily adapted and employed in other European aquifer systems. We will (i) build conceptual models to describe groundwater system functioning under the influence of uncertain parameters and processes defined at diverse spatial-temporal scales; (ii) characterize the fate of emerging contaminants (ECs) such as pharmaceuticals, personal care products and engineered nanomaterials, as well as agricultural and industrial chemicals, in aquifers and the way they may threaten the quality of GW; and (iii) quantify the effect of multiple sources of uncertainty on sustainable management and protection of groundwater, here including hydrogeological settings, well abstraction rates, sources of contamination, anthropogenic actions, EC loads, natural attenuation processes, spatial and temporal distribution of redox conditions and ecotoxicological concerns. 

Because geological media are heterogeneous and exhibit spatial variations on many scales, prediction of subsurface flow and transport are formidable challenges. These tasks can only be rigorously tackled within a probabilistic framework. We apply and extend a recently developed scaling framework able to explain a wide range of observations about the way main statistics and probability distributions of environmental variables change with (space-time) scale. We adopt a Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA) approach aimed at increasing confidence in decision making through quantification of risk. Our approach to PRA involves considering information of various origins and synthesizing them in a descriptive and simplified set of indicators, easily transferable to decision makers. Casting the work in a Bayesian framework will enable updating risk indices by conditioning on data obtained in the experimentally-oriented parts of the project. Risk analysis will be based on assessing exposure of a given organism to concentrations of ECs, combined with ecotoxicological studies, as well as consideration of social implications. Ecotoxicity tools (bioassays) will allow quantitative assessment of potential deleterious effects to the environment of the ECs that may be present in the system. Relevant and application-oriented pilot scenarios jointly identified with the stakeholders involved in the project will be analyzed. This will lead to (i) assessment of the contaminant-specific vulnerability of the aquifer systems, and (ii) improved, physically-based risk assessment and water management protocols. As such, PRA provides an umbrella under which knowledge of diverse nature can be blended so that a comprehensive decision can be taken by properly considering risk (Decision Making Under Risk). As a concrete and applicable product, we will provide a decision-making procedure and associated decision matrix for the sustainable use and management of groundwater for civil, agricultural and industrial activities and ecosystem preservation in the pilot scenarios.

Project structure
The project is structured according to seven WPs
WP1: Data collection and multiscale characterization
WP2: Probabilistic flow and transport modeling
WP3: Fate of Emerging Contaminants, ECs, - laboratory experiments and modeling
WP4: Ecotoxicology
WP5: Multidisciplinary risk assessment and decision making
WP6: Dissemination of results, communication with stakeholders/general public
WP7: Project Management
Overall structure of the project and interactions between WPs


The project considers direct pilot application to two field sites representing different but complementary realities: the Bologna and the Cremona Aquifer systems, located in Northern Italy. The Bologna Aquifer is a key source of water for the metropolitan area of Bologna. The lower aquifer provides 80% of all groundwater used for drinking and industrial purposes and is under threat of contamination from the upper aquifer due to preferential pathways linked to localized discontinuities of the confining aquitard layer. The Cremona Aquifer is located within the northern part of the Padana Plain, in the so-called Springs Belt. Natural high-quality water springs are the main supply to agriculture and a key environmental driver. These natural springs (and the associated historical buildings and hydraulic works) have remarkable social, historical and touristic value. Springs contribute to a set of interconnected, natural and delicate ecosystems, hosting plant and animal life fully adapted to their water quality. The Cremona territory, where people can enjoy a pristine and breathtaking natural ecosystem, is accessible through interconnected paths connecting natural springs, canals, forests and lands; it constitutes a key element of our cultural heritage legacy, and an example of a delicate environment in need of preservation. The Bologna and Cremona sites are archetypal of two distinct realities of alluvial aquifers, and can be considered representative of diverse environmental settings of Europe-wide interest. Both sites are heavily exploited, but associated with different degrees of knowledge, monitoring and even processes involved. We will provide quantitative understanding and process-based models of the hydrogeological system and geochemical behavior of reactive chemical species in relevant scenarios, under model and parametric uncertainty. Then, we will show how to include these results within a decision making framework for the sustainable use of water, preserving historical heritage, and producing acceptable risk to existing ecosystems. The methodological approach and associated operational tools we propose to develop are general and not limited to the two selected sites so that they are extendable to other threatened aquifers in Europe and worldwide.


The research activity of WE-NEED will evolve following three interconnected actions: (1) optimal use of data sources and development of new analysis protocols; (2) development of computationally affordable and robust predictive models; (3) risk analysis and design of adaptive management strategies. Research issues will be addressed via parallel and complementary modeling and experimental efforts, at laboratory and field scales. WE-NEED will lead to significant new advances by providing (i) quantification of the role and effect of key representative contaminants on changes to water quality in aquifers; (ii) understanding of the way ECs migrate in groundwater systems; (iii) quantification of the effect of groundwater extraction on the spatial distribution of groundwater fluxes and levels as well as solute concentrations under uncertainty; (iv) assessment of the feedback between anthropogenic activities and the dynamics of key geochemical processes; and (v) multidisciplinary evaluation of risk of anthropogenic activities to water resources. The work will include (1) comparison between various analytical tools and their combination for detecting and characterizing ECs in complex environmental matrices involving diverse aqueous solutions; (2) detection and quantification of weathering and transformation processes to ECs, and of associated metabolites and weathered materials, in these environmental matrices; (3) application of these findings and tools to investigate the fate and behavior of ECs during transport in aquifers under realistic conditions; (4) evaluation of environmental sample toxicity and chemical composition to incorporate mixture toxicity conceptual models; (5) development of a unified theoretical and modeling framework to quantify the scale dependence of the main statistics of groundwater flow and transport model parameters; (6) embedding of scale-dependence within probabilistic models; (7) application of these techniques to quantify environmental risk on the target systems. The research will consider both laboratory and field scale studies. This strategy is required because the relevant processes occur on a broad range of scales. Small-scale effects (and their associated uncertainty) often propagate to larger scales, and a suitable theoretical/observational framework is required to interpret and quantify these effects. The experimental data sets produced by WE-NEED will be examined in state-of-the-art geochemical/hydrodynamic models to evaluate predictive capabilities. Activities at the field level will focus on implementing laboratory findings in the analyses of realistic systems. Ultimately, we will develop a robust theory and associated predictive models directly applicable to engineering, environmental risk assessment and related industrial/agricultural applications. Each Work Package (WP) will have a primary component of field data, laboratory or modeling based studies. WPs will incorporate one or both of the other components, to create well-balanced research development. The following steps underlie our approach: (i) data collection, to provide baseline information of key environmental parameters from the investigated sites; (ii) evaluation of established and/or perceived environmental risk assessment practices, to identify high risk - high uncertainty events; (iii) focused research activities to improve our understanding and quantification of the transport and transformation mechanisms, to enable robust modeling of flow and transport in the complex subsurface systems. Risk analysis will be based on assessing exposure of a given organism to concentrations of ECs, combined with ecotoxicological studies. Ecotoxicity tools (bioassays) will allow quantitative assessment of potential deleterious effects of the ECs that may be present. A mixture toxicity approach will be followed considering additivity of effects or the potential interaction of chemicals. This approach will be based on the recent EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) summary report by identifying substantial deviations from additivity, i.e. synergism or antagonism. We will employ the Probabilistic Risk Assessment framework conceptualizing the problem in terms of Source, Pathway and Receptor.


D1.1 Provision of storage and curation of data; D1.2 Report on new sub-Gaussian Models; D1.3 Software to generate unconditional and conditional sub-Gaussian fields; D1.4 Report on characterization of field sites.

D2.1 Report on particle tracking methods for complex non-linear problems. D2.2 Report on groundwater flow and transport on the two field sites; D2.3 Report on probabilistic time related protection zones of the two field sites.

D3.1 Report on detection and characterization protocols of the selected ECs including detailed sample preparation for analysis, analytical methods and parameters used for characterization; D3.2 Report on application of the analytical methods of the selected ECs in complex matrices, including sample preparation; D3.3 Report on transport experiments including modeling and analysis. D3.4 Report on the analysis of selected ECs at field sites.

D4.1 Report on EC toxicities from bibliography and laboratory experiments; D4.2 Report on the toxicity of samples from the two field sites; D4.3 Report on the mixture approach used for the study areas.

D5.1 Report on Groundwater Risk Management Model; D5.2 Report on the application of the risk model to the field sites.

D6.1 Project website inaugurated; D6.2 Presentations for public dissemination. D6.3 Educational articles and promotional material.

References coordinator and  leaders of  each WP:

WP1: Laura Guadagnini, Politecnico di Milano
WP2: Daniel Fernàndez-Garcia, Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya
WP3: Brian Berkowitz, Weizmann Institute of Science
WP4: Susana Loureiro, Universidade de Aveiro
WP5: Emanuela Bianchi Janetti, Politecnico di Milano
WP6: Martina Siena, Politecnico di Milano
WP7: Monica Riva, Politecnico di Milano

Contact Point for Communication/Dissemination activities:
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , Politecnico di Milano

Contact Point for Open Data/Open Access activities:
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , Politecnico di Milano

Water JPI key achievements 2011-2016

This publication presents the ten main goals achieved by the initiative till now.



Open Data & Open Access
Water JPI Interface

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