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’s Schnoor honored by science journal

CGRER co-founder Jerry Schnoor speaks at a World Canvass event celebrating CGRER’s 25th anniversary in 2015. (KC McGinnis/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | August 2, 2016

CGRER co-founder Jerry Schnoor was recognized last month by the journal Environmental Science & Technology for his research contributions as well as his work as the publication’s editor-in-chief.

Schnoor was featured in the July 5th edition of ES&T in a commentary authored by Joel Gerard Burken, a former student of Schnoor’s who now serves on the faculty in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Burken – who holds his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD from the University of Iowa – recounted studying under Schnoor in the 1990s. Burken discussed Schnoor’s sincerity and passion when working with students and colleagues as well as his genuine concern for public health and the environment as opposed to just conducting research, gathering data, and publishing papers.

“Sincerity and culture are corner posts to Jerry that are just as important as remarkable acumen and abilities. Though his sincere quality of person, Jerry sets a solid foundation that he stand upon in scientific work and in using this foundation as a position for strong speech on important topics,” Burken wrote. “…Impacts we can have go beyond data generation and being involved in policy issues, and speaking out for what we believe to be important. Jerry certainly spoke out on topics of importance.”

Schnoor served as editor-in-chief of ES&T from 2003 to 2014. During that time he helped to expand the journal’s international reach and established Environmental Science & Technology Letters, “an international forum for brief communications on experimental or theoretical results of exceptional timeliness in all aspects of environmental science (pure and applied), and short reviews on emerging environmental science & technology topics.” Schnoor also covered the COP21 climate summit in Paris for ES&T in December 2015.

Schnoor’s areas of research include global air issues, groundwater pollutant transport, and remediation.

ES&T is a biweekly, peer-reviewed scientific journal that covers research in environmental science, technology, and policy. For Burken’s full article and for links to various editorials Schnoor has published in ES&T, click here.

On The Radio – UIowa’s Schnoor looks at ways to remove chlorine in water treatment

(Joost Nelissen/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | April 4, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at a recent article by a University of Iowa professor about methods for removing the use of chlorine in the drinking water disinfection process. 

Transcript: UIowa’s Schnoor looks at ways to remove chlorine in water treatment

As the water contamination crisis continues in Flint, Michigan, a University of Iowa researcher is looking for ways to prevent a similar crisis in Iowa.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

In a February perspective in the journal Science, UI Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering Jerry Schnoor and researchers in the U.S. and western Europe offered their insights into the best ways to reduce tap water contaminants from public infrastructure. Among their preliminary findings is that residual disinfectants like chlorine may not be necessary if standards are in place.

Schnoor: “Chlorine, chlorine-oxide, and chloramines are strong oxidants used to maintain a disinfectant residual in water distribution pipes for safe drinking water. Changing from one form of chlorine to another at the water treatment plant can cause leaching of lead from old pipes, sauder, or faucets. That’s what happened some years ago to Washington D.C. when children were exposed to lead in their drinking water. In Europe, certain countries like the Netherlands have shown that a chlorine residual is not necessary, provided enough steps are taken to ensure advanced treatment of the water, replacement of the pipes periodically, and a clean distribution system.”

CGRER co-director Schnoor found that municipalities can deliver drinking water without disinfectants like chlorine as long as the water sources are protected and the water systems are adequately maintained. Replacing pipes at appropriate times has also decreased the need for residual disinfectants.

For more information about Schnoor’s research, visit

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Jerry Schnoor Q&A with Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie

University of Iowa civil and environmental engineering professor Jerry Schnoor interviews Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie as CGRER grad assistants Nick Fetty and KC McGinnis shoot video. (CGRER)
University of Iowa civil and environmental engineering professor Jerry Schnoor interviews Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie as CGRER grad assistants Nick Fetty and KC McGinnis shoot video. (CGRER)
Nick Fetty | December 7, 2015

As the COP 21 climate conference enters its second week, three representatives from the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and regional Environmental Research (CGRER) are on the ground in Paris to cover the event. CGRER co-director Jerry Schnoor and graduate assistants Nick Fetty and KC McGinnis got together Monday afternoon for a question and answer session with Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie.

*Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity*

SCHNOOR: Today at COP 21, there was a meeting of the BlueGreen Alliance. Michael Brune – executive director of the Sierra Club – said cities are able to make dramatic progress compared to those at the national level, what’s he talking about and is that true?

COWNIE: What he’s talking about is the ability of cities to make decisions immediately. We don’t need to have an act of congress or an appropriation that might come 12 to 16 months down the road. If there are things that need to be done we can do them today. The federal government, short of a national emergency, is very slow to respond and react. We’re working in preparedness and mitigation techniques. We recognize from past experiences some of the vulnerabilities we have even in Iowa to extreme weather events such as flooding and extreme downpours which result in water issues: flooding, water quality issues, erosion. It talks about the future of the state of Iowa. It talks about the future of the city of Des Moines. So we’re able to jump in there and start working with it and we can immediately start working with some of our local players. So as mayor of the city of Des Moines, I can enlist some of my local businesses, schools, other governmental agencies, counties. We can partner together also talking to people in their own residences, their own homes, on what they can do to make some progress lowering their utility bills but more importantly, at least in the discussion here about carbon, by lessening their utility bills they can save 30, 40, 50 percent on their bill, it’s 30, 40, 50 percent less carbon they’re putting through their furnace.

SCHNOOR: For the city of Des Moines, what specific things can you cite in the area of sustainability and lowering your carbon footprint?

COWNIE: Well first of all, we’re one of the cities that signed on the Compact of Mayors agreement. There’s 120 cities that responded to the plea by the president of the United States to get local government to respond. What does that mean? It means that we’ve signed up and we’ve committed. Additionally, we’re going to do an inventory of our greenhouse gas emissions. The city of Des Moines has already done that. And then what you do is make a plan to mitigate and target for reductions. In Des Moines we’ve added hybrids and electric vehicles in our fleets. We’ve redone, re-purposed, re-energized buildings with new furnaces, new heating plans, new cooling plans, new windows, new doors, new insulation. Some of which we’ve really taken to the extreme level. Our old library, as you know you and I did a meeting there, that building is over 100 years old. It’s on the national historic registry. Now the World Food Prize is there. It’s a LEED platinum building and a historic structure. We’re doing all kinds of things with the public sector doing what we can do. Leading by example. And also using our powers at the city level to encourage our businesses to do the right thing. So when Wellmark made their new building, we offered some tax increment dollars to get them to rethink how they were going to build their new building and they came to an agreement with us and built the world’s largest – at the time of their opening – single-owner, single-occupant LEED platinum building in the world. Those are the kinds of things we like to see because it speaks to not only energy but it speaks to the health of buildings. It speaks to the food they serve. How people get to and from work using public transportation. So many aspects of it touch on carbon use.

SCHNOOR: Is an action agenda for a city like Des Moines somewhat easier to implement than say for a whole country?

COWNIE: That’s right. At the local level, one of the inspiring things we can do is I know mayors from around the country, I know them around Iowa. We share good ideas. I try to call it legitimate larceny. If somebody has a really good idea on how we can make improvements and achieve further reductions, I’ll steal their good idea and I hope they’ll steal mine.

SCHNOOR: There’s some wariness here at COP 21 that we’re going to fall short. There’s an emissions gap between what’s needed to control the environment to less than two degree warming, we seem to be short. And they’re talking about a more ambitious agenda. Could some of that ambition come from the Compact of Mayors and people like yourself?

COWNIE: Yes. I think that some of the talk I’ve heard is that if they have the cities and the cities commit, and the cities actually do the work and meet their goals, that could account for about 25 percent of that gap that you’re talking about achieving that two degree goal. But I think that one of the things that we all worry about is that there’s so much carbon in the atmosphere that there’s sort of a pent up increase that’s going to happen over the next 50 to 100 years, that we can’t do anything about today so we’ve got to lower the emissions. Figure out how to capture carbon. How to do so many different things and aggressively raise our ambitions to achieve many higher levels. I think local government is one of the places it can really move forward  and we can spread that 25 percent hopefully to 50. We know that 70 percent of the energy that’s used happens in cities and the expansion and GDP and future is mostly going to be in cities so let’s rethink how the city ought to operate and let’s hope Des Moines is on the right track so we can get to a net zero city at some point or another.

Stay tuned to Iowa Environmental Focus throughout the rest of the week for continued coverage of the event. Follow CGRER and its reporters on Twitter: @CGRER, @JerryatCOP21, @nick_fetty, and @McGinnisKC.

Also check out the coverage by Iowa media about the trip: KGANDes Moines RegisterThe Daily NonPareilThe Daily Iowan.

Event: Johnson County Climate Forum

UI engineering professor and CGRER co-director Dr. Jerry Schnoor will deliver a keynote speech at the Johnson County Climate forum on April 18. (Michael Gallagher/Iowa Environmental Focus)

Nick Fetty | April 14, 2015

The Iowa United Nations Association (UNA) is hosting its inaugural forum to address climate change on an international scale.

The first of the eight-part community forum series will kick off in Iowa City on Saturday April 18. The event will take place at the University Athletic Club (1360 Melrose Ave, Iowa City) and is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. Cost of attendance is $10 which includes lunch. Those interested in attending must register before the event.

The event will include keynote speeches from UI engineering professor and CGRER co-director Jerry Schnoor as well as CGRER member Peter Thorne who also serves as a professor in the College of Public Health. There will also be panel discussions of student activism on climate change, the impact of climate change worldwide, and opportunities for citizen action. This series will serve as a preface for the UN’s conference to curb global greenhouse gas emissions scheduled to take place in Paris this December.

For more information about Saturday’s event, email Iowa UNA Exectuve Director Matthew Wolf: matthew[AT]

Monetary sponsors for this event include: UI Office of Sustainability, National Education Association Peace and Justice Iowa Caucus, Hills Bank and Trust Company, Rotary Club of Iowa City – Noon, John Fraser, Dorothy Paul. Other partners include: Johnson County UNA, UI Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, UI Center for Human Rights, UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sierra Club, ECO IC.

University of Iowa hosts international conference about environmental contamination

Nick Fetty | August 19, 2014
Water pollution in China. (Bert van Dijk/Flickr)
Water contamination in China. (Bert van Dijk/Flickr)

Beginning today and continuing through Friday, the University of Iowa is hosting a conference to discuss emerging contaminants and their effect on the environment.

EmCon 2014: Fourth International Conference on Occurrence, Fate, Effects & Analysis of Emerging Contaminants in the Environment will feature speakers from all across the world, including a keynote speech from University of Iowa engineering professor and CGRER co-director Jerry Schnoor. Representatives from various Big Ten schools (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue, Wisconsin) as well as Iowa State, Stanford and several other educational and governmental entities are scheduled to give speeches or other presentations. The event “will focus on the most recent developments and findings concerning the source, occurrence, fate, effects, and analysis of emerging contaminants in the environment, providing an ideal venue for exchange of cutting-edge ideas and information in this rapidly evolving research area.”

The first conference, EmCon 2007, was held in York, United Kingdom and brought in more than 100 attendees from all around the world. EmCon 2009 was in Fort Collins, Colorado and EmCon 2011 was in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The National Hydraulic Engineering Conference 2014 is also taking place in Iowa City this week. This event will focus on “sustainability in the design of infrastructure in a rapidly changing environment.”

EmCon 2014 begins at 4 p.m. today and the full schedule of events is available here.

On the Radio: Urban Wetland Projects

Photo by Sustainable Sanitation; Flickr

This week’s On the Radio segment covers the benefits of urban wetland projects. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

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