Water Sustainability

UI Water Sustainability Initiative: Larry Weber

By Mallory Hughes


            Larry Weber is the director of the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research (IIHR) and a professor of civil and environmental engineering. When the University of Iowa announced the Water Sustainability Initiative, he was eager to get involved.

            “IIHR has been interested in water and natural resources sustainability really since its inception,” Weber said.

            The research lab opened in 1919 and water-related projects have been occurring there since the beginning.

            After the floods of 2008, the discussion of cluster hires at the University of Iowa began. But there was also talk of sustainability and Weber suggested at that time to focus on water sustainability.

            “It would be great to say that not because of, but in spite of this flood, we’re moving forward with water-related work,” he said. “We have strength in water and we’re going to use this flood as an opportunity to really advance our understanding of water in the environment.”

            Shortly after, the university decided to move forward with the initiative and brought nine new faculty members to campus. Offering a community not only in their home academic department but within the cluster hire as well.

            “We felt that this particular initiative could benefit from was yet another community and that’s here with IIHR where we have a long history of water-related work, we have a number of senior faculty that will be able to help guide and lead and engage in these more junior faculty,” Weber said.

            On the pragmatic level, there is also a number of administrative and research support staff that can provide fundamental support services to these faculty.

            For example, the faculty in the cluster hire do not have to worry about creating a website, for example, because IIHR has web designers available to help them.

            “We really see the engagement as an intellectual opportunity, for us as well as the faculty, but also as a gain of efficiency for them,” Weber said.

            Although the team is just on the first step or two on a very long path, Weber said it’s easy for him to say this is really working because all of the building blocks are coming together.

            Most recently, Weber has met with some of the faculty to help brainstorm some federal grant ideas.

            “What’s important about that is sometimes, some junior faculty are expected to have their own independence, but more and more of the federal grant proposal opportunities are with these larger teams, which can be daunting for a junior faculty,” he explained.

            When they are struggling to get a $25,000 or $50,000 grant funded, we can help them produce grant proposals where they lead an effort for a $2 million grant opportunity, Weber said.

            In the future, the Water Sustainability Initiative will not only help the faculty become successful staff on campus, but allows for a broadening of the program at IIHR because they can reach out to other disciplines beyond engineering, such as chemistry or communications.

            One of the keys to the Initiative is to realize that the faculty members are solving global problems relevant to Iowa.

            “That’s exciting to me,” Weber said. “Iowa has some of the most relevant water issues facing our state, and those are transferable to the rest of the country and around the world.”



UI Water Sustainability Initiative: Dave Cwiertny

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.



UI Water Sustainability Initiative: Kajsa Dalrymple

By Mallory Hughes


            Kajsa Dalrymple is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. What makes her position unique, however, is that she was hired to be part of the UI Water Sustainability Initiative.

            While completing doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dalrymple heard of a unique position in Iowa for water communication and policy. A subfield that is not yet widely recognized, she was eager to accept the position.

            “This was a unique opportunity for me to tie my interests in environmental communication to policy and political science,” she said. 

            As part of the cluster hire, she was excited about the opportunity to work with engineers, geologists, and geographers, along with urban and regional planners.

            “”It was an excellent opportunity for me to come and work with a team of people who are all interested in an interdisciplinary approach to understanding water sustainability and water issues facing the world,” Dalrymple said.

            Iowa has been exceptionally enjoyable for her because it is a hub for water research. She said that because of Iowa’s rivers, central location, and agriculture industry, the state is facing issues related to both water quality and quantity.

            “I believe [Iowa] has a lot of potential to make a difference,” she said. “The research that’s coming out of this university and this state is very important and has the ability and potential to make some good changes.”

            Personally, Dalrymple has been working on a content analysis on how water is being covered by media in the state of Iowa. She has noticed that not a lot of coverage is dedicated to agriculture or research.

            “We see a lot of talk about the problems, but not about the causes of those problems. So there’s a lot that we need to understand about how we discuss water, and how the public might learn about water issues facing Iowa,” Dalrymple said.

            Similarly, she is interested in what other sources the public uses to gather information about water. For example, she wants to know who is going online or how people are using social media sites to get more information about water sustainability in Iowa.

            “It’ll be very interesting to be able to give back a little bit; to share this information with Iowans in order to involve them in the discussion regarding water issues facing our state,” she said.

            Iowans do care about water, Dalrymple said, and she believes that agriculture production and environmentalism can go hand-in-hand.

            “We need to encourage better communication between land managers, the farm bureau, universities, and governmental institutions so that we can all start working together,” Dalrymple said.

            In this sense, Dalrymple hopes to turn empirical research into actionable insights.. She said that communication research, like public opinion surveys and content analyses, lends itself to be used in policy discussions. That way, legislatures and policy makers have a solid idea of what the public really wants.

            Dalrymple, who teaches “Media Uses and Effects” and “Risk Communication” at the J-School, said it is a good avenue to get students involved in environmental, science, and health communication, and connect to projects like hers.

            “I have worked with a number of local organizations, watershed associations, river coalitions, and with the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities,” Dalrymple said.

She enjoys making a connection between students with communities across the state in order to get them experience with running campaigns, developing messages, and encouraging better communication between the university and the public.  

“We can empower citizens to produce content, to encourage one another to adopt more environmental behaviors, and to participate in discussions about our water resources. These efforts can only help us in our pursuit of a more sustainable future,” Dalrymple said.



UI Water Sustainability Initiative: Adam Ward

By Mallory Hughes


            Adam Ward is an Assistant Professor of Hydrogeology in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Iowa, and is one of nine faculty members hired as part of the Water Sustainability Initiative.

            He was drawn to the position because of the opportunity to connect his research with an interdisciplinary group on campus, and because of a strong tradition of research strength in hydrology and hydraulics at the University.

            “My research is on how compounds move through watersheds,” Ward said. “Its how water and whatever is in it moves through streams, between streams and their aquifers, between the atmosphere and wetlands, and how each of the different elements of the water landscape function as a unit.”

            Current research in Ward’s group includes the management of nutrients, like nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon, in agricultural landscapes. They look at the transport and fate of synthetic hormones, and the study of the relationship between plant water use and groundwater management.

            “We know how to protect the environment, but how do we do that in balance with protecting our own livelihood, protecting our food and fuel supplies, how do we use resources without polluting other resources?” Ward asks.

            He said that while those questions are tough, his research and studies are only one part of the solution. He emphasizes that collaborating through the cluster hire is a critical step toward understanding human impacts on the environment, and how to best manage our limited resources.

            Along with the tough questions that need solving, Ward said that just because scientists are researching these environmental issues, that does not mean they are anti-agriculture or anti-farmer. In fact, it is just the opposite.

            “I’m pro-farmer, I’m pro-agriculture. That’s what sustains me,” Ward said. “We need to bridge that gap and come to solutions together.”

            Ward is currently monitoring a network of stream gauges that are installed around Eastern Iowa and Iowa City. Signs are posted near streams asking people to text in the water level.

            By crowd-sourcing the hydrologic data, Ward and his coworkers are allowing the public to become involved in the larger network across the Northeastern United States.

            “It’s a passive engagement,” Ward said. “But we’re growing every year.

            Currently, there are gauges at the Iowa City Environmental Center, Ciha Fen, as well as the downtown location near New Pioneer Co-Op. More details can be found on www.crowdhydrology.org.

            Ward is also working with other disciplines to make the environmental science general education class, “Introduction to Environmental Science,” more exciting for students of all majors.

            “Anthony [Castronovo] is a sculptor in the Art and Art History department,” Ward said.  “He’s taking all of our environmental science topics and finding a public art installation or performance that is themed to that topic.”

            By including a connection to the arts, Castronovo and Ward hope to make the class more fun for those who are not focused solely in the sciences.

Ward also teaches a graduate environmental seminar at the University of Iowa.



UI Water Sustainability Initiative: Hans-Jochaim Lehmler

By Mallory Hughes


            Hans-Jochaim Lehmler has been a staff member at the University of Iowa for a long period of time. He officially became a faculty member in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health with the Water Sustainability Initiative.

            Every faculty member that is a part of the initiative is different, he explains, but they all have the same interests and can address problems as a team, which he said is an advantage.

            “I alone could not do this,” he said. “Fundamentally, the team kind of looks at the same issues, and that’s not something I have found at other institutions.”

            Lehmler specializes in the human health effects side of things, where water plays an important role in human exposure to certain materials.

            “Primarily, my interest is in persistent pollutants that are in water,” he said. “Particularly the old legacy pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls and halogenated pesticides.”

            Currently, his team is working on examining more recently used pesticides and fluorinated environmental contaminants as well.

            He is particularly interested in the aspect of chirality of the pollutants. Chirality means the molecules have a non-superposable mirror image of one another. The most common example, explains Lehmler, is the human hand.

            “One hand is the mirror image of the other hand, but they are not the same,” he said. “You cannot superimpose them.”

            And there are molecules like this, he said, in the environment. They can exist in various places, but Lehmler focuses on those that exist in the water. More precisely, his team is researching what these compounds do once they enter watersheds and eventually, our food chain.

            “If we eat a fish meal, how do these compounds move around in our body, how are we able to biotransform them, how do they accumulate in our body, and then what are the adverse health effects that these compounds have?” he said.

            They then study if the human body is able to enrich things as well.

            “So we have biotransformation within the environment, our bodies, and [it] moves around selectively in our body and is converted to something else,” Lehmler said.

            What he is most particularly interested in, however, is the susceptible population, such as babies or very young children. In these cases, studies have shown that the pollutants do have an effect.

            “We’re not really studying human populations at this point, but we’re using laboratory studies to help us understand things,” he said.

            Slowly, the team is recognizing the toxic signs that the mouse is exhibiting and understanding what is really happening to animals. Ultimately, they see there are a lot of things that are not known.

            “We’re trying to learn something that’s relevant for us potentially, but also potentially relevant for, you know, an aquatic ecosystem and understanding what’s going on there,” Lehmler said. “It’s a very broad field.”

            The biggest challenge is just that – the problems are really big but the science focuses on problems that are very narrow.

            “It sounds easy to do and study,” he said. “But it really is a huge effort to understand all these different aspects and be sure that what we’re finding is really relevant.”

            Lehmler teaches global environmental health and a toxicology research seminar at Iowa. He is also the Secretary/Treasurer of the Central States regional chapter of the Society of Toxicology. 



UI Water Sustainability Initiative: Tori Forbes

By Mallory Hughes


            When Tori Forbes accepted the position as an Assistant Professor of Water Chemistry at the University of Iowa, she did not consider herself to be a “water chemist.” After becoming a member of the Water Sustainability Initiative, however, Forbes considers herself to be just that.

            “I’m really fascinated with just the chemistry of water,” she said. “It’s one of the only solvents, that has very strong hydrogen bonding.”

            Water is very unique from other liquids because the hydrogen of one water molecule can interact or bond with its neighbor and this leads to very interesting properties.

For examples, most other solids are denser than their melted, liquid form. But for water, we know that ice always floats on top of liquid water. Whiles a common occurrence, this is caused by the hydrogen interactions in water.

            What she enjoys most about being on the Initiative, though, is the broad avenues for which her research can go.

            “I could definitely do more of the straight environmental side of things, or I can work on the engineering side of things where I develop material for water purification,” she said.

            It seems that Forbes is making the most of her time at Iowa and tackling both. One of her main research topics right now is to understand how nuclear waste moves through environmental systems, particularly in water.

            “We try to understand how uranium is going to interact with natural waters,” Forbes said. “There’s a lot of questions about how uranium forms complexes with organic matter and how it interacts with minerals.”

            And while uranium is the material her team is focusing on now, she hopes to expand that research to other elements that are associated with nuclear fuel, such as neptunium. Neptunium is uranium’s neighbor on the periodic table, but unlike uranium natural occurrence, neptunium is a by-product of nuclear fuel.

            “Neptunium is man-made, so when there’s nothing left in the environment, it behaves in a very different manner than uranium does,” Forbes said.

            And while Iowa only has one power plant, Forbes said she sees her research intersecting with issues on a regional, national, or even global scale. Even though these elements contain very, very complex chemistry, knowledge about them is growing.

            “If we understand the chemistry we can better understand the remediation strategies,” she said.

            On the materials development side of her research, Forbes has recently developed a nanotube that shows selective water uptake and transport.

            With this discovery, the team hopes to continue to explore the structural aspects of the new nanotube that results in the novel selectivity, in hopes of creating new membranes for water purification. This work was recently funded through an NSF CAREER Award through the Division of Solid State and Materials Chemistry.

            One of the outreach components of this grant includes a partnership with the University of Iowa Natural History Museum. She and other students in her research group will develop a display to show visitors how nanominerals and materials impact water quality.

            The new displays will feature interactive touch screens to engage the public on these issues that link back to the Iowa River and will also have activities for kids to learn more about where their water comes from.

            The goal is to allow visitors of all ages to become more knowledgeable about sustainable water practices and highlight how basic science conducted at Iowa can impact everyday life.

            Forbes teaches “Inorganic Chemistry” and an inorganic chemistry seminar at the University of Iowa.



UI Water Sustainability Initiative: Ananya Sen Gupta

By Mallory Hughes


            Ananya Sen Gupta is a big fan of the Midwest. She completed her PhD at the University of Illinois-Champaign Urbana and is a new faculty member at the University of Iowa as part of the Water Sustainability Initiative.

            When a friend relayed information about the available position at the University of Iowa, she said it was a “double-wow” because it was in the Midwest and because it pertained very closely to her field of signal processing, which is target toward environmental applications.

            “I like the highly professional [work] environment,” Sen Gupta said. “Yet it is very personable, too. It’s very close-knit.”

            She said she appreciates the top-notch academic staff at Iowa and the strong support infrastructure that allows for new faculty members to get involved quickly.

            While Sen Gupta’s core expertise at Iowa is signal processing and optimization, she is expanding her research interests into pattern recognition and informatics because they are closely related to her work, the contributions to those fields comes naturally.

She has most recently been working on topography maps of hydrocarbon biomarkers in crude petroleum, with emphasis on oil fingerprinting in the Gulf of Mexico.

            “The idea is to glean the part of the information that is important and see if we can meaningfully extract that information with signal processing techniques,” she explained. “That’s why the environment is both an inspiration and a real playing field.”

            During her first few months at Iowa with the Water Sustainability Initiative, Sen Gupta has learned that several mathematics and theoretical foundations need to be developed to address the complicated challenges that the environment lends the world.

            “Now, as a professional scientist, I’m working with field data. I now go in expecting things to not work,” she said. “Inevitably, something fundamental is being overlooked.”

            When something so fundamental is overlooked, it is her job to develop a solution to that problem or a new way to approach it.

            She says a lot of things go in to solving an Iowa environmental problem, but fingerprinting contaminants goes a long way.

            “Contaminants can happen because of air pollution or water pollution,” Sen Gupta said. “We have toxins and pathogens in groundwater and rain water.”

            Even though Iowa is not close to the sea, fingerprinting can go a long way, she said. By fingerprinting contaminants, scientists can then see how different contaminants combine and travel together.

            Historically, she comes from a signal processing and undersea acoustics background, thanks to her postdoctoral years at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. So in the future, she is interested in studying sonar and radar data to see if scientists can understand and predict floods and precipitation better. She hopes to work with the Iowa flood center in the coming years.

            As an academic, she is delighted with the challenges her research gives her and said if there were not a challenge, she would not know where to go

            “If research wasn’t challenging, it wouldn’t be research,” Sen Gupta said.



UI Water Sustainability Initiative: Eric Tate

By Mallory Hughes


            During the last year of his PhD study, Eric Tate was not even considering a career in academia. In fact, he had a job lined up in one of the national laboratories for the Department of Energy.

But when he heard about the Water Sustainability Initiative and the cluster hire at the University of Iowa, his outlook changed. He is now an Assistant Professor of Water Resources and Sustainability in the Department of Geography at the university.

            “This cluster was an opportunity to not be confined in terms of disciplinary bound,” Tate said. “I can publish in the geography journals, but if I had an opportunity to publish in journals outside the discipline, I would be rewarded and not penalized.”

            Tate said that he noticed this particular cluster hire has a tendency to think of things and to look at problems more holistically, trying to see the overarching problems as opposed to seeing only the problems within his or her own discipline.

            “We have people from all over, so we can come together on projects where we have mutual interests and discuss things,” he said.

            The University of Iowa was a good fit for Tate because of the strong infrastructure of flood-related research that has been completed at the flood center (IIHR – Hydroscience & Engineering). IIHR has become a resource for Tate in terms of data, people, and expertise.

            Specifically, Tate is a hazards geographer, who researches and studies issues closely related to flood hazards. He used to focus primarily on the physical dimensions of floods, such as GIS Modeling, where and how deep the water is, or its impact on buildings, which is heavily geared toward engineering, he is now focused on geography.

            “I am interested in the social dimensions of floods,” Tate said. “ So I try to model human populations. Why are some people more susceptible to flood impacts than others? What are the underlying reasons? Can we model them so we know a particular place where the most vulnerable people are likely to be?” he said.

            The outcome of this type of research is useful when trying to plan for future disasters. It will give communities some modeling information in order to support a disaster plan.

            “In time, I became interested in the social dimensions. So now it’s a more complex thing. It’s not just how the water is behaving but the ability of populations to deal with it,” Tate explained.

            In order to know how populations deal with a disaster, researchers must first understand how society works, studying marginalized populations, sociology, law, history, and environmental science to truly understand it all.

            But the implications of solving an Iowa environmental problem are different. In terms of floods, they simply cost the state a lot of money.

            “People lose their belongings, their homes, there are health and safety impacts,” Tate said. “We can design our societies in terms of being better protected from floods, but also not designing societies in the middle of flood plains.”

            If growing societies avoided flood plains, he said, they would save a lot of money. That money could be invested in other things like education instead of flood recovery.

            As with many others, Tate’s biggest struggle with his research is not enough time. But because he works in a subfield of geography that’s not in an established pipeline, Tate struggles with finding graduate students as well.

            “You’re not going to find a geology department that specializes in hazards geography,” he said. “A lot of things we need to re-train from scratch.”

            Luckily, Tate got a project funded for the summer of 2014 with the National Science Foundation. He’s been interviewing graduate student applicants to get the project rolling.

            “It’s essentially about the next generation of social vulnerability indicators,” he said.            The social vulnerability indicators will then be available for use in planning for future disasters.

            Tate teaches “Contemporary Environmental Issues” and “Hazards and Society” at the University of Iowa.



UI Water Sustainability Initiative: Craig Just

By Mallory Hughes


            Craig Just was born and raised in Iowa and calls himself a “lifelong Hawkeye fan.” When he saw an ad in the Des Moines Register for a lab director in the Environmental Engineering and Science Program, he could not answer it fast enough.

            Twenty-one years later, Just is still at the University of Iowa. He is a researcher and an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

            “I like working with humble folks,” Just said. “We’ve got that sort of Iowa-type culture here.”

            Currently, Just is studying freshwater mussels. He said essentially he is looking at how they eat, poop, and puke with respect to the nitrogen cycle.

            “Mussels are filtered feeders and they graze on green plants and small organisms,” Just said. “From an engineering perspective, I like to study how we might restore river habitats to make mussels even more productive toward removing nitrogen from the water.”

            By allowing the mussels to remove the nitrogen from the water in their grazing, nitrogen might flow to the Gulf of Mexico and contribute to the Dead Zone.

            “I’m learning that freshwater mussels could potentially create more nitrate, which is easily transported to the Gulf of Mexico,” Just said. “That would be a negative research outcome in my mind because I want to advocate for freshwater mussels.”

            He also said that those findings are only on the lab scale, and that they could be wrong on the larger, environmental scale.

            “I’m finding that I don’t know all that I need to know about mussels and nitrogen processing,” he added.

            Just is also studying engineered vadose zones, using deep-rooted poplar tree systems to treat high nitrogen food processing waste. He explained that this could also be a resource but when the nitrogen is applied too heavily, it escapes the root zone and contaminates groundwater.

            “We’re just trying to maximize ecosystem capacity toward growing a variety of things,” Just said.

            In another area of his research, Just is looking at alternative wastewater treatment systems, keeping rural Iowa in mind.

            “Many of our wastewater treatment requirements for really small rural communities create a very large financial burden,” he said.

            By researching new ways to treat wastewater, they hope to effectively use less energy and have them cost less, making them affordable for the rural communities around the world.

            Research in Iowa is particularly interesting because of the thriving rural communities and the rural-urban mix.

            “Unlike many other states, we just flipped over where we have more people in urban centers in Iowa than we do in rural centers,” he sad. “We need to keep rural Iowa viable in everything that it affords in the context of these growing urban centers.”

            This includes having fishable, swimmable waterways for everyone in Iowa. Another important thing is attracting and retaining individuals in the state by having useful amenities and remaining productive agriculturally.

            One of the biggest challenges for Just as a researcher is keeping his portfolio diverse in order to receive funding from a variety of sources. He also said that the research time scales are a lot shorter now than they used to be.

            Just is the director of the Community Engagement Core, part of the Iowa Superfund Research Center, which has multiple researchers across campus. Together, they study airborne polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), their impact on human exposure, and remediation strategies.

            He also teaches “Introduction to Sustainability” and “Design With the Developing World” at the University of Iowa.