Water. It's critical to human existence. And yet, many Americans cannot drink the water coming out of their tap.
“It’s easy to say people need water,” says Arthur “Aj” Moses, a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona, "but it’s never that simple.”
Moses wants to be an expert in water issues, from federal and state laws to the microbial make-up of the water in our rain barrels. And with that knowledge, he wants to go into environmental policy to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. To reach this goal, Moses works with assistant professor Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta and Project Harvest, a citizen science project with a mission to engage rural and urban Arizona communities about the health of their harvested rainwater they use for soil and plants. Moses works on the project testing harvested rainwater and soil for microbial contamination.
“I want to make sure people have access to clean water so they can sustain themselves. If you can’t grow vegetables in your own yard, what kind of world are we living in?”
Moses’ path to the University of Arizona and why he cares so deeply about water, be it in his hometown of Washington, D.C., or Tucson, Arizona, came from a personal revelation: even in 2019 and in one of the richest nations in the world, people don’t know what’s in their water and get sick because of it.
His first exposure to water crises was growing up in the nation’s capital in the early 2000s, when a lead contamination crisis left thousands of children as risk and resulted in a regulatory crackdown. But it was a friendship that opened his eyes to how acute water crises can be. After a troubled freshman year at college, Moses decided to put his life into perspective and joined the U.S Marine Corps. Long training hours led to the exchanging of life stories, and he met many immigrants with vivid tales of walking miles just for clean water. His perception on his own life shifted as he learned how people struggled for basic amenities, especially water.
Clean water wasn’t just an issue abroad. During his training, a sign posted above the only water source stated that elevated lead levels were present in the water lines. When he informed his family, he learned his father, also a Marine Corps veteran, had received a letter about exposure to water contamination from the base water supply nearly 40 years earlier.
A Focus on Environmental Policy
Inspired by people and their stories, Moses returned to his studies when his military service ended, graduating from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in geographical sciences. On his own time, he began to research water quality issues and law in different regions of the U.S., and he decided to pursue a graduate degree to get the expertise he deemed necessary to work in environmental policy. Moving away from the East Coast, he was excited to talk to people about water rights and issues in the Southwest, a region where water is more precious than land.
Looking at initial data from the first year of Project Harvest, Moses saw the presence of E. coli in harvested rainwater and soil. This is not necessarily alarming; most strains of E. coli are harmless to humans and live naturally in our intestinal tract. However, E.coli is used as an indicator organism, meaning that its presence generally suggests fecal contamination and the potential for pathogenic microbes. Identifying the source of contamination is key.
To get answers, Moses wants to replicate how people care for their gardens. Many people use sources other than tap water to water their gardens, such as excess household water, or greywater, reclaimed water or rainwater. And there is very little research on harvested rainwater. His doctoral research involves a greenhouse study that could reveal the origin of microbes and contaminants and help him create best practices for local communities. Moses is basing this study on participant surveys from Project Harvest and using common plants grown in Arizona, like romaine lettuce and cilantro. Even as Moses dives deep into the intricate details of water contamination, he knows that he wants to work on science policy on a global scale.
He was recently named a 2019 Science Policy Fellow under the University of Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) Next Generation Fellowship program, which supports graduate students from underrepresented communities in their professional careers as Earth system scientists. Moses will receive financial support for two years of graduate school and participate in two summer internships with UCAR and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Based in Washington, D.C., he will brush shoulders with policymakers and learn from the inside about the bureaucracy of water and earth system sciences in the United States. “Through this fellowship, I will be able to form research questions that can not only help American communities but also improve our scientific capacity as a country by answering the scientific questions of interest to our government,” Moses said.
But during this time, he won’t forget the communities he’s worked with. “I want to make sure people have access to clean water so they can sustain themselves,” Moses said. “If you can’t grow vegetables in your own yard, what kind of world are we living in?”
This story was part of the 2019 WildCat Country insert of the Arizona Republic.