A legacy of water protection

Although she’s stepped down from the co-directorship of the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center (WRC), don’t expect Deb Swackhamer to fade away. She remains a University professor of science technology and environmental policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, a professor of environmental health sciences with the School of Public Health and leaves a legacy of water protection literally on the books.

So how did a little girl from Whitehouse Station, New Jersey grow up to be Minnesota’s most awarded water champion and one of the country’s most sought after scholars of water policy?

Swackhamer was raised in an educated household in which there were “no boring discussions.” Her mother was a professional proofreader and her father, an accomplished architect. Gifted in math and fearless in her undertakings since childhood, Swackhamer says with complete modesty, “I’m a very lucky person. I’ve been at the right place at the right time. Yes, I’ve also worked hard, but I really I do think there was a lot of luck involved.”

Deb SwackhamerBut those who know Swackhamer would remind her that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Her work ethic, academic credentials, and ability to build bridges across wildly divergent interests is a result of talent, hard work, and a dedication to the environment. 

At age 18, Swackhamer attended Grinnell College in Iowa intending to major in math, but became attracted to chemistry in part due to a seminar taught by a chemistry professor on the topic of water. After college, she attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she majored in water chemistry and limnology, followed by post-doctorate work at Indiana University.

Her journey to the water-rich state of Minnesota came about from a 1986 notice from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health in search of an assistant professor of environmental chemistry. She landed the job, becoming a full professor in 2000.

Three years later, she was approached by University administration about the co-directorship of the Water Resources Center, which is part of both CFANS and University of Minnesota Extension. It turned out to be the perfect fit.  “It was the best of all the worlds,” she says. “I could teach and conduct research while learning the administrative ropes.”

Recruited in 2006 to oversee the master plan of the University’s fledging Institute on the Environment (IonE), Swackhamer accepted an 18-month leave from WRC to co-chair the committee to design IonE’s blueprint and serve as its interim director.

The experience was rewarding for Swackhamer, the University, and the state.  “I learned how to work with the university’s central administration—its budgeting, alumni and legislative offices, and really learned how the world of water resource and science policy fit into it,” she says.

Swackhamer returned to the WRC co-directorship with the connections and know-how to push forward on big-picture ideas. The experience also sharpened her already polished ability to communicate to a wide range of audiences and help build WRC into an exemplary member of the National Institutes for Water Resources.

During her tenure with the Water Resource Center, Swackhamer became one of the University’s most sought-after water experts to key legislators in Minnesota and in Washington D.C. and a well-known voice on water issues to the general public via the media. After one particularly engaging interview on WCCO radio, host and noted environmentalist Don Shelby offered his help in getting Swackhamer her own radio show. She laughs, “I know he was kidding, still, it was all very flattering.”

"I didn’t think she thought I was serious, but I was,” says Shelby. “And if she had agreed, I would have fought to have gotten her a program. Frankly, I had never heard anyone so skilled at making complicated public policy issues and very dense science completely understandable.  She didn’t speak in jargon, she spoke in people-talk, and she never insulted the audience by trying to oversimplify.  I still think people need to hear the facts—and Deb knows the facts."

In 2008, she was called upon by the Minnesota Legislature to serve as lead author of the Minnesota Statewide Conservation and Preservation Plan commissioned by the Minnesota Legislature. The comprehensive plan is still used as a resource and a roadmap for the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, as well as for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other environmental organizations.

The plan became a stepping-stone to the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework (MWSF), a groundbreaking document that Swackhamer views as one of her greatest accomplishments. Commissioned by the 2009 Minnesota Legislature and funded by the Clean Water Fund, the MWSF charts a legislative and policy-making roadmap for future investment in Minnesota’s water resources. As lead author of the MWSF, Swackhamer was a something of an orchestra conductor managing the interests of more than 250 project partners/stakeholder from throughout the state. She coaxed and coalesced opinions and best practices from voices throughout the state. “There’s been significant advancement on the framework itself—and it’s heartening how many of the its individual recommendations have been put into place.”

Among Swackhamer’s many awards are the University’s Ada Comstock Scholar Award, the University’s highest award for female faculty, and the Founders Award from the international Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry for lifetime achievement in environmental sciences.

As an instructor, Swackhamer consistently receives high marks from her current and former students, many of whom are employed in federal and state agencies, industry, and academia. That includes Roger Pearson, vice president for research and development at Maple Grove-based Aspen Research Corporation and one of Swackhamer’s former Ph.D. students. “Deb was one of the professors I respected the most—from her teaching style to her dedication to learning more at all times in her chosen field," says Pearson. "At the end of the many research studies, we spent endless hours crafting articles for submission to peer-reviewed journals.  I believe it was her tireless editing and insistence on perfection that resulted in our getting a comment by one reviewer who wrote, ‘your manuscript is extremely long, but I can find no way to remove anything from the text.’  The most valuable lesson she taught us…Science is of no use to anyone if it is not communicated clearly and understandably.  That lesson has served me well across all of my professional endeavors.”

Along the way, Swackhamer was appointed chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board, served on the Advisory Board of the US-Canadian International Joint Commission, elected president of the National Institutes of Water Resources in 2011, and was appointed to the University’s prestigious Charles M. Denny Jr., Chair in Science, Technology and Public Policy, housed in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Swackhamer currently serves on the U.S. Health Effects Institute Committee on National Research Strategy for Unconventional Oil and Gas Extraction, as well as on environmental advisory boards with Minnesota’s Clean Water Council and environmental boards at University of Michigan and Clemson University. She leaves the WRC hopeful for Minnesota’s water future and for the University’s role in it.

“People in every corner of the state are consistently grateful for WRC’s help,” says Swackhamer. “Water is a major issue to Minnesota’s citizens, politicians, and decision makers. If I’ve lobbied for anything in my career, it was for our waters, and the environment as a whole.”

- Nina Shepherd

This story appeared first in the Water Resources Center Minnegram newsletter.