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Welcome to the Jungle: UT Students Help Village in Panama

Person stands on Vista Alegre's current water intake system.

The current water intake system pictured with a resident of Vista Alegre.

Many senior design projects give students hands-on experience working with partners in East Tennessee, but this year one CEE team partnered with First Utility District, Alcalde de Cemaco, and Panama-Solea Water to remotely execute a water filtration system for Vista Alegre, a community in Panama.

Vista Alegre is a site along the Tuira River that endures flooding in Panama’s tropical environment throughout the year. As a result, water levels rise extensively, and solid debris enters the current system, harming the community’s pump and decreasing efficiency.

The team, which included Cameron Neary, Ashley Pelham, Yousef Rghebi, and Andrew Tsay, was tasked with redesigning a floating pump water intake system that is flexible, durable, cost effective, and sustainable for surrounding communities. The system needed to withstand high sediment loading and flooding periods, be able to automatically shut off during floods, and be operated and maintained by using local resources and skills.

“It has been a really good eye opener for each of us in the group,” said Tsay. “Since this is an international project, our group had to adapt to a lot of the changes between the differences of designing here in the US and designing in Panama.”

Currently, Vista Alegre has had problems with lack of filtration, maintenance, and high sediment loadings throughout the year. With all these problems in mind, the team had to apply principles from multiple engineering disciplines, including mechanical, water resources, structural, technical, and geotechnical engineering.

Mechanical engineering was needed to develop an anchoring and flotation component to the system; water resources engineering helped design a pump infiltration or certain flows and water depths; structural engineering skills were needed for assessing the integrity of the system while it floats; electrical engineering was important for considering the powering of the pump and implementing some micro-controls for turbidity or sensors to display data when things go wrong with the river; finally, geotechnical engineering was necessary because the unit had to be mounted and connected to the soil on the shores.

Neary, who worked to develop and design the anchoring components of the floating intake system, said that they worked to identify the most effective design to work for the local community, but moving forward the design will become more specific and include details about how to construct, maintain, and operate the anchoring components.

“Something I’ve learned about this project is that 95 percent of the work you are going to do as a civil engineer is probably not the stuff that you would imagine yourself doing,” said Neary. “There are a lot of meetings, correspondence, and time in between tasks. The time to actually do calculations and solve something becomes very small.”

This project has the potential to be applied to a lot of communities along the same river in Panama.