Gravitating Toward the Water

April 11, 2016

by Shianne Fisher

How do you like your tap water?

Grad student Kathryn Klarich researches neonicotinoids, a class of insecticide found in Iowa rivers.

Grad student Kathryn Klarich researches neonicotinoids, a class of insecticide found in Iowa rivers.

IIHR Research Engineer Jerry Schnoor joined other researchers asking this question in the journal Science in February. The question is especially apropos, considering the water crisis in Flint, Mich., where lead has tainted the drinking water, and Toledo, Ohio, where a 2014 algal bloom contaminated the water supply for more than 40,000 people. The article, which discusses the role of chlorination, underscores the need for more research in the area of water treatment.

“It’s something a lot of people take for granted, that when we turn on the tap our water will be safe,” says IIHR graduate researcher Kathryn Klarich. “There are emerging issues that we might not realize. We need to be constantly improving on those.”

Klarich, a new member of the Cwiertny Lab, researches neonicotinoids, a class of insecticide that was found to be present in the Iowa River by the U.S. Geological Survey and IIHR researchers in 2014. David Cwiertny and his research group hope to determine whether the pesticide is being removed through drinking water treatment processes, as well as the likelihood of its transformation into other contaminants through chlorination.

“What’s interesting about neonicotinoids is that because they’re so polar, they’re not likely to be removed in the drinking water treatment process,” says Klarich. “No one has looked at what’s happening to them once they’re in our water systems.” This is an alarming fact considering the pesticide is known to be toxic to humans, particularly fetuses and young children. A link to bee die-offs has fortunately brought the pesticide to the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is expected to complete its review of neonicotinoids by 2019.

Until then, Klarich will continue researching the contaminant as part of the University of Iowa civil and environmental engineering group. She came to the University of Iowa earlier this year after a two-year stint at Barr Engineering Co. in Minneapolis, where she focused on drinking water and wastewater treatment processes. During her undergraduate studies at the University of Minneapolis Twin Cities, she also worked on nitrogen removal in a small-town wastewater treatment plant and was involved in research at St. Anthony Falls Laboratory to develop better sampling methods of urban storm water runoff.

“Civil engineering is a pretty broad field,” says Klarich. “Since I started college, I just kept gravitating toward the water stuff, getting more and more experience in water-related things.”

And experience she has. Apart from the wastewater and urban storm water research she did at the University of Minnesota, Klarich has traveled to Tanzania, India, and Central Europe to learn about water in many different contexts.

Her trip to India even birthed a start-up company, which she co-founded after learning about the important connection between food and access to clean water. She says that after the students in her group became aware of their shared interest in environmental issues associated with agricultural production, they “decided to go for it,” launching Twin Fin Aquaponics in the summer of 2013. The company, which has since been disbanded, sold aquaponically-grown fish and produce to restaurants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

She says that small-scale experience in agriculture was what drew her to the research in neonicotinoids at IIHR. “Water is my main passion, particularly water sustainability and ensuring that water supplies are healthy now and in the future.”