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EEB faculty part of MSU's big water push

Water is the most precious and essential resource for life on Earth.

It’s no surprise, then, that Michigan State University is committed to finding solutions to modern problems that jeopardize the availability of clean, safe water for natural ecosystems and for human uses, including drinking, agriculture and so much more.

MSU is known for its long-standing involvement and leadership in water research. Its Institute of Water Research was established in the 1960s and, in the decades since, several more programs and partnerships have evolved to monitor, analyze and protect water resources in the Great Lakes State and beyond.

In 2012, for example, MSU launched the Global Water Initiative, or GWI. The five-year initiative added more than a dozen new faculty members to an already strong community of water scientists and, today, MSU is home to more than 140 water researchers.

To enhance and amplify the collective efforts of these researchers, the university recently launched the MSU Water Alliance, a nexus created to unite the many facets of water research already happening across campus and to forge new pathways to solutions. Kelly Aho, Matthew Schrenk and Jackie Gerson, all featured here, are EEB core faculty members. 

“We need to be ready to encounter opportunities that may not match our historic model, but it may be the new way to approach science. We need to be ready to build new teams, be smart about taking chances that may be high risk but also hold high reward,” said Doug Buhler, associate vice president in the MSU Office of Research and Innovation. The office leads the Water Alliance in partnership with AgBioResearch, MSU Extension, and the Homer Nowlin Endowment.

 “MSU has people with great ideas on how to get things done,” Buhler said.

Many of those people can be found in the College of Natural Science, particularly within the department most focused on our planet: the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, or EES.

“The Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences has several faculty members whose research relates to or revolves around water,” said Jeff Freymueller, department chair and Endowed Chair for Geology of the Solid Earth.

“We study physical, chemical and biological processes in surface water and groundwater, along with the global redistribution of water associated with melting glaciers and ice sheets.”

These researchers are working to better understand the myriad processes that affect our water and that are affected by water. Their work spans disciplines and scales — from the microscopic to the global — to take a more holistic view of water and all it touches, including our lives, our livelihoods and our planet's health.

They’re all connected and Spartan scientists are digging into these deeply intertwined relationships to help us live more sustainably within them. While doing so, they’re also preparing the next generation of water experts to usher us into the future.

“In a dynamic and rapidly evolving global landscape, we find ourselves confronting a multitude of changes that have profound implications for various aspects of our lives,” said Phil Duxbury, dean of the College of Natural Science. “These changes span across technological, environmental, social and economic dimensions, presenting both extraordinary opportunities and formidable challenges.”

Going to bat for the water cycle

Nearly 97% of the world’s water is salty or otherwise undrinkable. Roughly another 2% of it is locked up in ice caps and glaciers.

That leaves less than 1% of the planet’s water as freshwater available to meet humanity’s needs for farming, drinking, manufacturing and so much more.

“Humanity and nearly everything we know and care about is hinged on an amazingly small amount of water,” said Jay Zarnetske, an associate professor in EES, who joined MSU in 2013 through the Global Water Initiative.

“I think it shocks people to learn how very little of the water on Earth is sustaining most of the life that we care about.”

In that context, it can be especially distressing to hear Zarnetske say that this water is being polluted and redistributed at unprecedented scales. But he finds optimism in the underlying truth that this planet has evolved to reuse this precious resource.

“There is an urgency to this work with many water crises happening around the world, but there is also lots of hope. Because, if we don’t screw up our water, it is infinitely recyclable,” said Zarnetske. “The water cycle, while very complex, makes it clear that water is reusable.”

The phrase “the water cycle” may evoke images of the diagram used by elementary schools around the country, if not the world, to illustrate this point. In fact, Zarnetske said, this widely used diagram is the first exposure many people have to nature’s basic laws.

Water falls from white, fluffy clouds as rain or snow, usually above craggy mountains, where it feeds glaciers and snowcaps before running down streams and rivers into lakes and groundwater, while also infiltrating soil to help nourish fields and forests.

The excess liquid water continues its descent to the ocean and, along the way, some evaporates, accumulating into those white, fluffy clouds that started the cycle.

Zarnetske and his team are particularly interested in the parts of the water cycle where rain and snow melt enter drainage basins, as well as in the interface between ground water and surface water.

Within these environments, Zarnetske examines physical and biological processes at work in the water and how those influence the climate and connected ecosystems, which, in turn, affect the water being studied.

But one of his recent projects dealt with the water cycle on the whole. This classic picture of it — the one used to teach students — had a glaring omission: There are no people in it.

Working with his team of students and postdoctoral researchers, collaborators at other universities and colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey, Zarnetske has helped change that. The “official” USGS water cycle diagram, analysis and teaching resources now represent human uses and their respective places in the cycle.

The nexus that connects us

Perhaps no other human activity more obviously affects the water cycle than agriculture.

Without water, there are no crops. Furthermore, the fertilizers and pesticides used to help feed the planet’s populations can also wash into streams and groundwater, creating even more of a problem.

So it’s probably not surprising to learn that the first hire of MSU’s Global Water Initiative back in 2012 was someone focused on farming.

Bruno Basso is a John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor and an MSU Research Foundation Professor in EES. He’s also a faculty member with MSU's W.K. Kellogg Biological Station.

Basso’s known for using cutting-edge technology to create detailed maps of farmland that help growers optimize their yields and best manage their resources, including water.

“Our aim is to get more crop per drop,” Basso said.

His team is also working to measure and mitigate the carbon footprint of food production. Engaging with farmers and stakeholders has been crucial, he said, to ensure that research outcomes are not only academically valuable but also practically applicable and aligned with real-world needs.

For example, by working with farmers, Basso’s team can prescribe strategies that deliver the right amount of water to precise locations around the field while working to minimize pollution and resource loss through runoff.

“Techniques such as precision irrigation, conservation tillage, cover cropping and agroforestry can help reduce runoff, soil erosion and nutrient leaching,” Basso said. “These practices contribute to maintaining a healthier water cycle by improving water retention in soil and reducing environmental pollution.”

These are exactly the types of solutions world leaders are looking for as they raise awareness around the interconnectivity of water, food, sustainability and ecosystem health.

This connection has been dubbed the water-energy-food-ecosystem nexus by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

What this means is that holistic approaches to water solutions, such as the ones being developed at MSU, will not only make water more secure, but food and energy more available, without sacrificing the environment.

And it’s not just global organizations that are thirsty for water solutions.

Working on solutions

“Honestly, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t care about water,” said Anthony Kendall, an EES assistant professor.

Kendall’s line of research is known as landscape hydrology. As its name implies, it’s concerned with the interactions between water and the landscape it’s on, but it goes deeper than that.

Landscape hydrologists want to paint a holistic picture of their systems of interest, which requires not treating them as though they exist in isolation. The water is affected by the landscape, the people on it, the climate and more. Those things, in turn, affect the water.

For Kendall, the most interesting questions are found where the intersection between people and water is the strongest, so he too spends a lot of time thinking about agriculture.

“People play a really vital role in this,” Kendall said. “If you don’t understand how humans are using water, you don’t understand what’s going on with water.”

How farmers design and use their irrigation and drainage systems — even where they install solar panels — alters the flow of water, which can have all manner of downstream consequences: economical, environmental and meteorological, to name a few.

To do their research, Kendall and his team combine field work with computational modeling, making use of satellite imagery and other forms of data.

By collaborating with local partners and other experts from a range of areas — including economics, social science and engineering — Kendall and his team are helping people, including farmers and policymakers, make better decisions with water.

“One of the things that I think is really interesting about the College of Natural Science is that, even though we have this focus on basic science and discovery, most of us are working on solutions,” Kendall said. “We are interested in learning how the world works in ways that we can use to help and make things better.”

Cycles in flux

It’s easy to find evidence of Kendall’s statement by taking a quick lap around his building and saying hello to some of his EES colleagues — provided they aren’t out working in the field.

Kelly Aho, an assistant professor in EES, joined MSU in 2023 and is finishing the process of setting her lab up and

Kelly Aho
Kelly Aho

establishing her fields sites around Michigan. Her research deals with how rivers and streams emit greenhouse gases containing carbon and nitrogen and how those emissions are changing with the climate in flux.

“When you think about the linkages between water and climate, it can’t get any more explicit than this,” said Aho, who also has an appointment in the Department of Integrative Biology. “If they hydrological cycle is changing, that inherently means that the carbon and nitrogen cycles are changing.”

Hydrologically speaking, it can be tempting to think of rivers and streams like plumbing — essentially inert pipes that simply move water around. But these waterways are very active with all the life, minerals and chemistry they contain.

As a result, they’re home to processes that naturally emit carbon and nitrogen. Those processes are being affected by changes in the water cycle and in the climate, but how is an open question. Getting answers isn’t easy, but, working in Michigan, Aho and her team have easy access to places where they can start looking for them.

“I’ve always liked streams and rivers. I like to be out in them and seeing how they work,” Aho said. “By being out there, taking measurements, we can detect the processes and fluxes and tease out what’s controlling them and how they’re changing.”

From there, the researchers can scale up what they find at a local level by working with country-wide data available through the National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON.

At the same time, Aho is also interested in scaling down and revealing how microbes in water influence the processes she’s measuring. That interest connected her with Matthew Schrenk, an associate professor in EES and the Department of Microbiology, Genetics, & Immunology.

A continuum of research

Matthew Schrenk
Matthew Schrenk

Schrenk’s research takes place in subsurface water, so a different environment than where Aho makes her observations. Still, there’s no surprise that water would find a way to connect them.

“Everything’s part of a continuum,” said Schrenk who joined MSU a decade ago through the Global Water Initiative. “We know there’s an intersection between microbial activities in the water and the impact Kelly measures in the output processes. This is something that motivates both of us.”

Like Aho, his field work primarily takes place in Michigan, but his interest in microbes stems from a different set of questions.

Michigan is slightly raised toward the center of its mitten-shaped lower peninsula and slopes down toward the Great Lakes. That means water recharges in mid-Michigan and discharges in the lakes, Schrenk said.

That also means the water at the subsurface-surface interface is relatively young in the middle of the state. Water there may have seen the atmosphere within the last decade or two.

In the lower parts of the state, the water gets older. Much older. Tens of thousands of years older.

This gives Schrenk and his team an opportunity to investigate the microbial communities in these different settings. The researchers are learning from the different stories the microbes tell about natural processes and about how human activity is affecting them.

Working with local utility companies and the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, or EGLE, Schrenk’s lab collects water samples for its analyses from wells around the state. That also provides opportunities to connect with the public and answer their questions about water.

“For most people, the water is just what comes out of their faucets, they have no idea that it’s 20,000 years old,” Schrenk said.

“But when they hear that, they want to learn what does that mean and why is it so old,” he continued. “I got into this because I was intrigued by the ages of water in different places, but we’re learning lots of things about outreach, policy and how to communicate with people.”

Around the world

Of course, the field work conducted by EES faculty isn’t confined to Michigan, not with water being a global issue.

outdoor portrait of Jackie Gerson
Jackie Gerson

For example, Jacqueline Gerson, an assistant professor in EES has worked in Africa and South America showing how artisanal and small-scale gold mines release mercury, a toxic heavy metal, into water systems and other environments.

Miners add mercury to dredged sediments to bind with gold, then burn the heavy metal off. That mercury-laden smoke drifts into the air, and the mercury then falls to the ground in rain and is washed into waterways. Some mercury is taken up by plants, which return it to the soil when their leaves fall.

“Mercury from gold mining can get in the fish and wildlife that people eat, often at harmful levels,” Gerson said. “People often assume that if we reduce burning coal, we reduce mercury, but we’re finding coal is no longer the main problem.”

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining accounts for nearly 40% of global mercury emissions. Yet eliminating it would destroy the economic benefits it provides mining communities.

So Gerson is working with miners and their communities to find real-world solutions that can sustain people’s livelihoods without compromising human or environmental health.

“Miners have to be involved from the beginning to identify specific solutions that will work in their unique physical and social environments,” Gerson said. “That’s a theme in my work. We have to collaborate with the people who are living and working in these places if we’re going to be successful.”

Training future scientists

With so many diverse projects and areas of expertise, EES provides its students with unique learning experiences and research opportunities. Undergraduates and graduates are exposed to truly interdisciplinary work in a variety of modes.

Students can get training in field work, lab work and computational modeling — often within the same research team — becoming versed not just in the practices of a single subfield but prepared to continue pushing and breaking boundaries.

“Forget about disciplines, we want them to learn to take on the problem in front of them,” Schrenk said.

Students are also encouraged to participate in activities beyond research, including internships and hands-on projects that provide them with practical experience and a more comprehensive understanding of water-related issues.

Faculty are also developing courses that reframe how undergraduates in EES and other departments learn and experience the dynamic and complex themes in water research.

“We want to empower students right away and help them understand how they can help,” Aho said. “We’ll have them working how to interpret what they hear in the news and to develop a critical skillset.”

With MSU’s training and a solutions-oriented mindset, Spartan students will be equipped to make a difference as they graduate and launch their careers.

“Ultimately, these are careers that students are seeking – and they want to make an impact,” Kendall said.

“We recognize the changing role of water and water sciences and how that affects people,” he added. “We are moving with that sense of urgency to make sure our degrees meet the needs of 21st century students.”

See the full story in the College of Natural Science