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On a Mission: Water Sustainability

Posted on August 16th, 2012
IIHR Research Engineer David Cwiertny.

IIHR Research Engineer David Cwiertny.

Sustainability — it’s a term you hear frequently these days. But ask someone to define it, and what you might hear next is a long, thoughtful silence.

IIHR Research Engineer David Cwiertny is part of a group of new University of Iowa faculty members working to change that. Cwiertny, who is also an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, came to the UI in 2011 as part of the Water Sustainability Faculty Cluster. This interdisciplinary group is the first of its kind on campus, and includes 10 new faculty positions created to advance research, education, and outreach on water sustainability.

Cwiertny believes the cluster approach is a perfect fit for water sustainability. “Issues with water are so complex and so multifaceted … It takes something like what Iowa is doing to bring all these parts together.” Cwiertny, a native of California, had previously spent time at Iowa as a postdoc. Coming back for a faculty position focusing on water sustainability was, he says, a no-brainer.

Cwiertny believes the University of Iowa has built one of the top water resources programs in the nation. “It’s just unique. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up.” Cwiertny says his decision to return to Iowa is a strong statement of his commitment to what Iowa is doing on the water sustainability front.

Cwiertny’s research focuses broadly on the fate of chemical pollutants in natural and engineered aquatic systems. A major effort in his research program is the development of innovative, materials-based strategies for water treatment. He hopes one day that technologies produced in his laboratory will increase the sustainability of water resources by promoting beneficial reuse of impaired water supplies, including wastewater. It’s an idea that can be hard for the public to accept, Cwiertny says. “The ability to communicate is going to be really important,” he says.

Cwiertny loves the collaborative aspects of being part of a cluster. “The potential collaborators I have here, the interdisciplinarity of the whole program — very few places are doing anything like this,” Cwiertny explains. “I just think it’s a very exciting thing to be a part of.”

The water sustainability cluster is already developing exciting interdisciplinary research collaborations, and he expects valuable new courses for students to develop as well. But Cwiertny believes that the cluster’s mission to educate and inform extends beyond the campus to the entire population of Iowa. “I think it’s incredibly important,” he says. “I really hope we can make it happen.”

He adds, “I think we can.”

Cwiertny believes that Iowans, having lived through the devastating floods of the last few years, are ready to hear the message of water sustainability. “We have a community now that’s going to be receptive, I think, and acutely aware of how water impacts them.” He believes the time is right to take the message of water sustainability to Iowans. “People more and more these days are valuing what role the environment plays, and how water fits into that,” he says.

Although Iowa has historically had abundant rainfall, new ways of using water are pushing the system to its limits. Corn-based ethanol production, which can use vast amounts of water, continues to be a factor in the state. Increased corn production, in turn, puts its own stresses on Iowa’s water and soil. It’s essential, Cwiertny says, for Iowans to think about the alternatives now.

“Iowa can be a unique place where these issues can really be at the forefront,” he says. The water sustainability cluster can play an important role in this process. “I really do believe that we’re doing good things and important things.”

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