Sacramento State launching environmental research institute

Sacramento State plans to launch a new institute that will merge environmental science and policymaking, particularly concerning climate change and water-related issues that challenge California and the world.

Campus officials say the Institute for Water, Energy, Sustainability and Technology, or iWEST, will be up and running this fall. It will be located initially on the Sacramento State campus, but plans call for the institute eventually to have a campus of its own less than a quarter-mile from the university, on a 25-acre parcel just off Power Inn Road that once was home to a California Youth Authority prison.

“We want that to be an innovation hub for the university,” said Dr. Frederika Harmsen, Sacramento State’s provost and vice president for academic affairs. The new institute, she said, “will be a one-stop shop for the community and other individuals that are looking for expertise in those areas of sustainability and technology related to water and energy.”

The new program was announced Thursday in a speech by Sacramento State President Alexander Gonzalez.

Harmsen said iWEST will be launched with $750,000 in seed money from the university budget. But it will be self-supported by fundraising in the long run, including development of the new site. A nationwide search to hire an executive director will begin soon.

The institute will act as an umbrella organization, Harmsen said, meaning it will serve to integrate existing special programs at the university. These will include the Office of Water Programs, the Sustainable Technology Outdoor Research Center, and the Center for Collaborative Policy. The latter is located in downtown Sacramento and will remain there to continue its close collaboration with state and local government.

Harmsen cited aquaponics as an example of projects the institute might pursue. Aquaponics involves raising fish and growing crops in a single farming system. Excrement from the fish serves as fertilizer for plants grown in water, which in turn purify the water. In an ideal arrangement, the system boosts food production and requires little maintenance.

“No one’s figured out how to fully make it work on a large scale,” she said. “What we want to do is have a living laboratory that would be an international destination for technical conferences and so forth.”

Other potential research subjects for the institute include hydroelectric dam relicensing, wetland restoration, water scarcity and groundwater management.

The initial funding is also expected to pay for a few pieces of specialized research equipment, including a mass spectrometer and ion chromatograph to analyze water samples, and a geographic information science research and training lab.

Harmsen said one purpose of the institute is to gather Sacramento State experts from different fields so they can solve water and environment problems together. The goal is to share the results with government policymakers in a form that can be applied to daily life.

“I think a lot of the research and development that happens on the Sacramento State campus is a best-kept secret,” she said. “So what I’m trying to do is promote our strengths, which are definitely in the areas of water and sustainability and in policy.”

Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.