Robert Nairn is the Sam K. Viersen Family Presidential Professor in the School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science at the University of Oklahoma. He is the Director of the Center for Restoration of Ecosystems and Watersheds (CREW), Associate Director of the Water Technologies for Emerging Regions (WaTER) Center, and Adjunct Professor of Biology.
Professor Nairn is affiliated with several other campus programs at OU. He holds a BS from Juniata College, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania (1989) and a Ph.D. from Ohio State University (1996), both in Environmental Science.
Why is water conservation important?
There are a couple of ways to answer this. To make it as simple as possible, all the water that is on the planet is all the water that ever was on the planet and will ever be on the planet. It’s continually recycled. We’re not making any more, but we’re making more people. Everything we do uses water, so the only way we can continue to do that is be efficient and conserve both the quality and quantity of water to sustain us for a long time. The other way to answer this is that good clean water is important to us individually, locally, and as a society. It’s critical not only to your physical but also to your mental and emotional well-being. It’s a basic human right to have clean water.
What kind of work did your team perform in Tar Creek, OK?
This goes way back. I grew up in Pennsylvania. My dad’s side of the family were coal-miners, so I was around mining growing up. When I finished my bachelor’s degree, my first job was with the United States Bureau of Mines, which has been defunded, and they were a research group for mining-related problems. I got involved on the reclamation side, cleaning up polluted land and water. I came to Oklahoma thinking it was an agricultural state where I could work on similar issues. I wasn’t in the state six months when someone approached me about this big lead-zinc mining district in northeast Oklahoma that, quite honestly, I didn’t even know existed. It had been the largest lead-zinc mining district in the world in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, it was polluted with elevated concentrations of iron, zinc, cadmium, and arsenic. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designates superfund sites, hazardous waste clean-up sites, and Tar Creek had been on the list since 1983 when the list was invented. The waters were “irreversibly damaged.” The waters were supposedly too bad to treat, but they were still flowing. As a university professor, I thought, Hey, there’s a challenge we can tackle. We developed passive treatment systems which don’t use greenhouse gases or complex mechanics. You build functioning ecosystems that utilize natural processes that active systems use, that take a longer time but have a larger footprint. We built two systems in Tar Creek. We treated about 400 gallons of polluted water per minute. Turns out, the waters weren’t irreversibly damaged.
What’s your main area of research and involvement with the WaTER Center?
My main research is for the Center for Restoration of Ecosystems and Watersheds (CREW). We focus on finding solutions for very polluted bodies of water in Oklahoma. One of them was at Tar Creek. Because of my team’s work through CREW in the U.S., we started doing similar work in Potosi, Bolivia. The water sources they have in the area we’re working in are contaminated due to Potosi’s history as a mining region. When we began working in South America, the WaTER Center combined efforts with us to reach that region of the world. We also work with St. Francis University and Pennsylvania State’s College of Medicine; they do more of the human health side, we do more of the planting and water research. It’s not very often you have the opportunity to do something at your job that also fulfills you personally. It’s nice to have that tie-in with the WaTER Center, where you get to really make a difference both at home and in other parts of the world.
What are some campus initiatives for water conservation and preservation?
There’s the Environmental Science Student Association (ESSA), OUr Earth, Green Week, Earth Week, and so on. One of the exciting things is that there are a lot of students on campus interested in environmental issues, and it would be cool if those people got together on these issues. When I came to OU in 1997, ESSA was the driving force for campus recycling; there weren’t any recycling programs on campus before that. It transformed from a student initiative to a university one. We have to remember that if you really want to get things done at the university, and it comes from the students, you can convince the administration that these are things that need to get done. They’re going to get done. The more people you have behind an issue, the more you can get done.
What are some actions OU could take to preserve more water?
As a water person, one of the things I find frustrating is when the sprinklers kick on, and a lot of it is run-off. It’s not going toward landscaping because it’s just lying on the sidewalk and not going anywhere. I applaud that OU uses well water for landscaping and not drinking water, but water run-off is something I’d like to see fixed.
What’s something important to keep in mind when considering environmental changes?
One of the things we learned early on is that our ability to develop this research and these solutions is all about working with the community. You have to earn the trust of the people you’re working with. Just like anyone else, water is critically important to this community. But they’ve had this orange river running through their backyard for years, and they’ve been told there’s nothing they can do about it. Imagine coming in and saying, “We have an idea about how to fix that!” Their response is, “Yeah, right.” It took a decade of community building, especially with the various indigenous tribes in that area. There’s a different cultural perspective on water for those folks. That was a learning experience for me and my students. You understand the importance of water as a necessity, but also as something more, something spiritual that people have with water. In science and engineering, you can get so caught up in, “Here’s the problem. Let’s try to fix the problem, then move on to something else.” You can come up with a great idea or a great solution, but if you can’t work with the people in the community, you can’t do anything worthwhile.