By Mallory Hughes
David Cwiertny is an Assistant Professor of Water Sustainability in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa. He is one of nine faculty members hired recently to be part of the Water Sustainability Initiative. Cwiertny, who was a faculty member at University of California-Riverside, had his first experience with the University of Iowa during his post-doc in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“I knew the quality of the program, so when the job came up and it was what I was looking for and in my research area, it was really appealing to come back,” Cwiertny said.
The department was one reason to return to Iowa, but another was the sustainability initiative. He said there was a lure of having a good quality department with a bunch of collaborators, who were people in similar stages in their own careers, allowing everyone to work and grow as a group. As far as being back in Iowa City, Cwiertny said, “I think it’s a community that’s really aware of the water and its environment. So it’s nice to be in a place where people understand the value of the research you do.” Currently, his research focuses on water quality and pollutant fate. This separates into two areas, in environmental engineering and chemistry.
In the chemistry aspect, Cwiertny studies the fate of emerging contaminants in the environment and their persistence in surface water. “We try to think of how pollutants might break down in sunlight or how they might stick to organic matter that’s suspended in the water column or how they might get degraded,” he said.
But Cwiertny also does a lot of work with engineer treatment systems, trying to develop new and innovative materials-based approaches for water treatment to move toward water re-use. Water re-use means being able to turn impaired water supplies into something that we can use and ultimately benefit from. After some time researching, Cwiertny said he is realizing that his area of expertise is only one part of the larger environmental puzzle.
“To get a result in the lab is one thing, but to get it to translate to good policy is another. To translate that to good science education and public awareness is a whole new issue,” he said.
But in the end, he said it speaks to having good coworkers on the water sustainability initiative because of the broad range of people who focus on things like communication, policy, and technology. His science, he said, is just one part of that.
“The work we’re trying to do is to better understand how to get to sustainable agriculture practices,” he said. “It’s not to say that we can’t use growth-promoting technologies or even fertilizers that help increase agricultural yield and productivity, but we’ve got to make sure the things we’re using are appropriate and don’t pose too much of a risk for the environment. Our research is trying to find a balance.”
The biggest challenge in that, Cwiertny said, is that he is doing work on agriculture in a state that is agriculture-based. “We just want to be respectful to everybody,” he said. “We’re not trying to lay blame or point fingers.”
He hopes to perform the research and then get the findings and messages out to the public to try to find a sustainable path for all to work together. “To really have advances in water quality, it’s going to take a holistic approach where everybody comes to the table as one and listens and comes to a compromise to find a common ground,” Cwiertny said. “We don’t want to lose sight of that.”
He said in the future, with respect to his field and water quality, there could be a bigger push on the link between energy and water. “It takes energy to produce water and water to produce alternative forms of energy. So there’s a lot of interesting science and policy decisions that have to be made there.”
Cwiertny teaches Environmental Chemistry and Natural Environmental Systems at the University of Iowa.