As climate change makes dry regions even drier, researchers around the world are eager to find solutions for the growing crisis of water scarcity. Research shows that around two-thirds of the world’s population faces water scarcity for at least one month a year, and the World Health Organization estimates that by 2030, up to 700 million people may be forced to leave their homes due to drought.
Solving these problems on a global scale will require international collaboration. But making a worldwide impact often starts with local innovation, as J. Hunter Adams’ work at the Cypress Environmental Laboratory in Wichita Falls, Texas, shows. From July 2014 to July 2015, Hunter was part of a team that developed and operated a direct potable reuse (DPR) system in Wichita Falls to bring drinking water to citizens during a significant drought.
One of only six such systems approved to operate worldwide, the DPR program turned more than two billion gallons of wastewater effluent—the city’s liquid sewage, pre-treated in the wastewater plant to include as few contaminants as possible—directly into high-quality drinking water. That makes it the world’s biggest system of its kind, Hunter tells us—a major but worthwhile undertaking for the lab.
“We did lots of work, we were working 10-12 hours a day and basically on call 24/7 with our operations,” he says. “We came in seven days a week for just over a year, running samples daily to make sure the water was safe.” Researchers from Singapore, Israel, and other countries came to visit the lab, Hunter says, because so many places are facing worsening droughts.
Hunter’s research also involves water quality testing in response to some of the most common water treatment problems: taste and odor complaints. Taste and odor issues don’t necessarily mean drinking water presents a health risk, but they can indicate the presence of potentially harmful levels of cyanobacteria — blue-green algae that are naturally present in lakes, rivers, and other water sources.
Complaints about water taste and odor in Wichita Falls prompted the Cypress Environmental Laboratory to initiate a monitoring program for algae blooms in the lakewater, the source of taste and odor compounds and cyanotoxins. Like the DPR system, the lab’s work with algae bloom monitoring has led to international collaboration.
“It's a worldwide issue,” Hunter says. One of his current projects is to update and write new content for an algae manual in collaboration with the American Water Works Association. The team includes researchers from Australia and Europe since algae blooms are, as Hunter says, “a ubiquitous problem.”
“I noticed that there is a gap in literature from the labs themselves. There's lots done by engineers, there's lots done by academics. There's not a lot published by the people actually running the samples, and doing the work for the water systems.”
- Hunter on publishing research as a laboratory supervisor
Hunter first earned a bachelor’s degree in organismal biology from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. “My first love was insects, entomology, and then plants,” he says.
When he chose to pursue a master’s degree in biology at Midwestern State, he focused on aquatic insects. He traveled to Belize with a team of researchers to collect samples of aquatic insects in malaria-endemic areas where larval mosquitoes would be present. It was also an early experience studying water quality in rivers where the prevalence of mosquitoes was high.
After that, Hunter started a Ph.D. program at the University of North Texas in Denton, continuing to focus on aquatic insects. But he heard through his network that a position was open at the Cypress Environmental Laboratory back in Wichita Falls, where he and his family decided they wanted to live permanently. Hunter’s timing was lucky: he began working in the lab just four months before its DPR project began.
“I kind of fell into this when our water system was making international news,” he says. “And so I got to be involved from the beginning of the reuse system operation.”
As a result of his work at the lab, he has traveled extensively to share findings and best practices, most recently serving on a Water Research Foundation expert taste and odor panel for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.
Hunter has written research articles and guidance documents, and collaborated with the American Water Works Association, the Association of Public Health Laboratories, and the Water Environment Federation to develop ethics training for lab employees. He also won the WEF Lab Analyst Excellence award in 2020.
It was a career pivot that Hunter didn’t expect. But he says it’s led him to a job he values and enjoys—even if the core scientific disciplines involved in water treatment and quality monitoring weren’t his first research interests.
“Now all I do is analytical chemistry and microbiology, which is not what I liked when I was in college,” he says. “Now I love it.”