CGRER Looks Forward: Co-director Jerry Schnoor

Julia Poska | January 25, 2019

schnoor photo 2018
Photo courtesy of Jerry Schnoor, 2018.

Sometimes Jerry Schnoor looks like a typical engineer, running models and making projections using computers and mathematics. Other times he looks more like a forester, working with soil and seeds to clean up chemical contamination through a process called phytoremediation.

The co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research has spent over 40 years in civil and environmental engineering, studying some of humanity’s greatest challenges. His work primarily focuses on climate change and environmental contamination, with an emphasis on water quality.

“I guess it’s all a part of sustainability, written large,” Schnoor said. “We want there to be an adequate supply of water for people and biota and industry and agriculture forever. Ad infinitum. That’s what sustainability is about.”

Schnoor discusses his work with phytoremediation. 

Iowa’s water is so bad, he said, he wouldn’t want to swim in our lakes or eat fish caught in our streams. Most of the pollution comes from the state’s predominant agricultural landscape.

Soil constantly washes off of farm fields and into waterways. It brings with it nitrogen and phosphorous, which occur naturally in the soil and are often boosted with fertilizers. High concentrations of these nutrients cause harmful algal blooms, which create issues on a local and global scale.

Such blooms can release toxins that make water unsuitable for drinking and recreation. They also trigger a chain of ecological reactions which eventually starve the water of oxygen, making it inhospitable for aquatic life. Runoff into the Mississippi River from farm states like Iowa has created one such “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico spanning over 6,000 square miles.

“We’re not there yet, but I have to think that we’re poised to make real improvements,” Schnoor said of these issues.

He looks forward to better soil management on farms—adoption of practices like cover crops and reduced tillage to minimize erosion—but climate change will likely put more pressure on such solutions.

Schnoor discusses his work involving climate change. 

Experts project that Iowa will see an increase in severe storms in coming decades. More storm water will create more issues with flooding, as well as more soil erosion and nutrient-laden agricultural runoff.

Schnoor’s students run computer models that forecast water quality and crop conditions in climate change scenarios. If humanity fails to dramatically rein in carbon emissions in coming years, these impacts could be drastic.

“I hope that’s not true,” he said. “I hope we’re going to have comprehensive energy and greenhouse gas legislation in the future in this county, and that all countries abide by the promises that they made in the Paris Climate Agreement.”

Schnoor discusses responsible citizenship in the age of climate change. 

Schnoor stressed especially that scientists like him can’t save the world on their own. He’s an engineer, but not a technology optimist.

He believes real progress requires changed hearts and minds among the masses and their elected representatives. People must recognize the urgency of the situation at hand.

“Technology holds some promise, but we won’t solve these problems without a change in the way we think,” he said. “The unilateralist approach won’t work because, after all, we are one planet.”

***This post is the first installment of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series that will run every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***


CGRER researcher awarded for developing self-cleaning culvert

Dr. Marian Muste with his self-cleaning culvert design. (IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering/University of Iowa)
Dr. Marian Muste with his self-cleaning culvert design to the left. (IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering/University of Iowa)
Nick Fetty | July 14, 2016

University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research member Marian Muste was recognized earlier this year for his efforts in developing a self-cleaning culvert.

Region 3 of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Research Advisory Council recognized Muste’s project along with three others in the Midwest region. Muste’s project is among 16 nationwide to be dubbed the “‘Sweet Sixteen’ High Value Research Projects” of 2016.

Muste’s research – “Development of Self-Cleaning Box Culvert Design: Phase II” – examines a system that uses the natural power of a stream flow to flush out sediment deposits in culverts. The system does not require intensive maintenance and can be constructed in new culverts or retrofitted for old ones. The design prevents buildup of sedimentation or vegetation in culverts which during rain events can cause culverts to overflow and damage adjacent property.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has implemented Muste’s design in a culvert along Highway 1 in Iowa City. Muste and his research team have monitored the site since the new design was installed in 2013 and he said it has been “working very well.”

Muste – who also serves on the faculty of the Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Geography – concluded his report by outlining the benefits of his design.

“Besides their primary role in sediment mitigation, the designed self-cleaning structure maintains a clean and clear area upstream the culvert, keeps a healthy flow through the central barrel offering hydraulic and aquatic habitat similar with that in the undisturbed stream reaches upstream and downstream the culvert. It can be concluded that the proposed self-cleaning structural solution ‘streamlines’ the area adjacent to the culvert in a way that secures the safety of the culvert structure at high flows while disturbing the stream behavior less compared with the traditional constructive approaches.”

UI researchers study mussels to improve water quality

Craig L. Just is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa. (University of Iowa)
Craig L. Just is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa. (Tim Schoon/University of Iowa)
Nick Fetty | July 8, 2016

University of Iowa researchers are studying the role freshwater mussels play in the nitrogen cycle as a way to improve water quality in the Hawkeye State.

Craig L. Just – an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering – and Ellen Black – PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering and Science – are studying the potential of using freshwater mussels as a way to remove nitrogen from Iowa waterways. Nitrogen contributes to the growth of algae which serves as a food source for the mussels. Specially, Black is looking at the effect that microbial communities have on native freshwater mussels.

“Mussels filter water and excrete nitrogen into underlying sediment, thus sequestering biologically active nutrients for microorganisms to consume and possibly remove from river systems,” Black told The Daily Iowan.

Through the use of generation sequencing, Black is able to pinpoint all bacteria found in mussel beds which can help researchers to better determine the effect that mussels have on microbial processes.

In addition to his work with mussels, Just has also worked with civil and environmental engineering PhD candidate Hunter Schroer. Just and Schroer are studying ways to make military explosives less prone to self-detonation. The researchers also seek to discover and potentially mitigate the impact that explosives have on the environment by finding organisms that detoxify explosives by converting them into carbon dioxide. They’re also studying ways they can use plants as a cost-effective way to detect explosives in soil.

For more information about Black and Schroer’s research, check out The Daily Iowan.

Imagine Energy Traveler available to RAGBRAI riders

Nick Fetty | July 24, 2014
The Imagine Energy Traveler. Photo via
The Imagine Energy Traveler.
Photo via

The Imagine Energy Traveler – a mobile solar energy generator and educational tool – will be part of the 431-mile trek for this week’s RAGBRAI.

The trailer has amenities that allow RAGBRAI riders and other patrons to charge cell phones and other mobile devices using solar-generated energy. Patrons can also enjoy free popcorn made in a solar powered machine. The trailer also showcases various energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies and aims to educate users about these practices.

The Iowa Renewable Energy Association began fundraising, planning, and designing the trailer in 2013 and the following year, Dr. Craig Lust, an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, joined the effort. Funding was made possible through a grant from the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) – “a federal program designed to improve the research capacity of eligible states or regions, making them nationally competitive for future grants.”

The Imagine Energy Traveler has made stops at several county fairs and other festivals in eastern Iowa this summer. Currently the traveler can be reserved for free for various events on a first come first served basis. The trailer will be on the University of Iowa campus on October 15 and 16 as part of Meeting the Renewable Energy Challenge event.

Edit: Due to logistical issues, the Imagine Energy Traveler project was not completed on time and therefore not part of RAGBRAI or any other events. 

Water Quality Research

David Cwiertny, Assistant Professor of Water Sustainability, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Iowa.
David Cwiertny,
Assistant Professor of Water Sustainability.

A University of Iowa faculty member is studying how different contaminants get in to and persist in surface water.

David Cwiertny from the UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering examines how pollutants in water break down in sunlight or stick to organic matter.

His research team is trying to develop new and innovative approaches for water treatment systems with hopes of finding sustainable methods of water re-use.

Read the full profile here.

Audio: UI’s Jerry Schnoor discusses phytoremediation

Jerry Schnoor is a Professor in the University of Iowa’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. He is also the co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER).

Phytoremediation refers to the process of using plants to mitigate environmental problems. This includes using plants to extract harmful contaminants from soil and groundwater. Jerry and his students have done research on phytoremediation for more than two decades.