Hall of Fame - ARCSA Lifetime Achievement Award
Dr. Dennis Lye, PhD
by K. Scott Monahan, former ARCSA newsletter editor, based on an email interview of Dr. Lye by John Hammerstrom Pioneer.
That just might be the handiest 7 letter word to describe Dr. Dennis J. Lye, a contributor to the science and theory of safely catching and storing rainwater, years before any advocacy group.
Dr. Hari J. Krishna flew Dennis to the University of the Virgin Islands to share his knowledge of microbial risks posed to catchment systems with his fellow researchers in 1989. Five years later, Dr. Lye and Dr. Krishna were among the influential half-dozen establishing the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association.
Dennis served as its president in 1999-2000.
Raised on the Wind River Indian Reservation, Dennis acquired an early appreciation for conserving what little precipitation fell – averaging less than 10 inches a year – among the sagebrush and local grasses of west-central Wyoming. With rivers and lakes miles away, the survival of the family's sheep and cattle depended on drinking ponds.
The weather got much wetter for Dr. Lye upon his arrival at Northern Kentucky University, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, in 1984. That region receives about 7 times the annual rainfall of his boyhood. With its 'Karst' geology, Dr.
Lye soon understood why the 125,000 homes there relying on rainwater for potable use constituted about half of all rainwater collection systems in the United States in the mid-80's: "...there are many underground caves, sinkholes and disappearing streams which make ground water generally both unreliable and unsuitable for drinking."
As soon as Dr. Lye began teaching microbiology at the University, he emerged as a sought-out microbial authority within the embryonic rainwater catchment community – someone who could evaluate water quality concerns beyond the superficial samplings run by local health departments.
Up to then, there had been little scientific interest on RWH do's and don'ts or published research. And, it turned out, most of America's other rainwater catchment systems not within its geographic bullseye along the banks of the Ohio River near Cincinnati were found in the surrounding states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee.
Dr. Lye's professorship at Northern Kentucky University spanned more than 2 decades. His own research studies often required him to cross the bridge over the Ohio River into Cincinnati, where the nation's first water quality lab was established in 1912 and continues as a premiere research center even today. It is there where Dr. Lye joined other young and talented colleagues in a specialized department of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Our laboratory is assigned the task of monitoring and studying the bacteria that are commonly found in all types of water resources but especially in drinking water. Special emphasis is given to those bacteria that pose a risk of infection to humans through any type of contact with drinking water. We routinely characterize bacteria such as Legionella, Mycobacterium, E. coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, Aeromonas and many others too numerous to mention. Our laboratory also directs research that involves animal studies to further characterize the infection potentials of bacteria isolated from drinking water resources and other environmental sources."
Dr. Lye's expert guidance was instrumental to droughtstricken Atlanta's recent adoption of plumbing code changes that encourage single-family, residential installation of rainwater catchment systems for potable use. Yet, he remains pragmatic about fast-tracking any widespread adoption of RWH across the country. In the long-term, however, he's confident this technology will bear fruit as sustainable lifestyles become mainstream. In his words...
"Lack of experience/information/education about this water resource at the local, regional, and state level remains a major obstacle. These types of problems will need to be addressed by each state. Large public systems will be hesitant to adopt this alternative water resource unless they can be convinced of the economic viability of this process. We need to provide evidence that collection of rainwater is indeed a sustainable method of water/energy conservation."
For Dr. Dennis J. Lye's exemplary work throughout his career in the service of advancing rainwater catchment science, ARCSA's Board of Directors honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award at its September 2011 National Conference in Portland, Oregon.