Improving Water Quality and Quantity for Everyone

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Improving Water Quality and Quantity for Everyone

Messer works on issue that cut across engineering, ecology, income levels

Water quantity and water quality are not just environmental issues; they are people issues. “Every morning when someone wakes up, they should be able to say, ‘I have clean water to drink and food to eat.’ That shouldn’t be something that anyone must question,” according to Tiffany Messer, University of Nebraska–Lincoln assistant professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering and the School of Natural Resources.

Messer, her students and collaborators work every day to find solutions to water quality issues using technologies that can be used around the world. Her work crosses into engineering, ecology and chemistry to focus on improving water quality regardless of an individual’s geographic location or socioeconomic class. 

Messer looks at water quality in the natural environment, such as that in rivers and streams, because many people in the country, particularly in lower socioeconomic regions, drink water from those sources, she explained. 

Drinking water in rural areas is affected by agricultural chemicals, but chemicals applied to lawns and golf courses also affect the water in urban environments.

She also studies global issues, such as water scarcities’ impact on water quality and the effects on human health. 


“How we treat and care for our water matters for our neighbors,” Messer said. “Water quality is more than addressing what is in the water people are drinking, but also includes the water other species will drink that we have the potential to eat further down the food chain,” she added. 

As an example, fish may “bioaccumulate,” which means they hold contaminants in their bodies. Humans eat the fish and ultimately, have that bioaccumulation of contaminants in their own bodies. “It’s not exactly the issue when you first eat them; it’s more like 10-20 years down the road when we start to see these issues come up,” Messer said. 

Nitrogen – why research is important 

“We have massive quantities of nitrogen leaving Nebraska and it impacts human health,” Messer said. Nitrogen can enter streams, rivers, lakes and oceans, which has the potential to lead to fish kills, reducing quality and quantity of an essential food source. 

One of the top engineering challenges globally is managing the nitrogen budget – applying enough nitrogen essential for growing bountiful crops, but not so much that it leaches into groundwater or runs off the soil into rivers and streams. 

“Depending on soil types, nitrogen can take 20 to 30 years or more to flush through a system to a river. Therefore, we likely have seen what we’ve applied 20 years ago in many regions,” Messer said. The way nitrogen moves depends on the soil type; it moves quickly through sandy soils and more slowly through clay soils, but that means the impact of management practices that have been implemented won’t be seen sometimes up to 20 years or more after being adopted. 

One of the many “unknowns” is how a changing climate will affect nitrogen movement. Extreme events related to a changing climate, such as excessive rainfall episodes, affect the way nitrogen moves through the system, Messer said. She explained that a high concentration of nitrate in groundwater is especially dangerous for expectant mothers. Excessive nitrogen can actually limit oxygen in an expectant mother’s uterus and suffocate the infant before it is born, a medical condition known as methemoglobinemia. “This is a critical water quality issue that remains prevalent throughout the Midwest just because of high nitrate concentrations in groundwater drinking wells,” she said. 

And then there’s the “cocktail,” or the additional contaminants in the water that interact with each other and with the nitrate, causing even more health issues. “You can look at these issues at the local scale and not just in agricultural communities,” she said. 

“Don’t apply nitrogen unless you have to. It saves you money and also helps the environment,” Messer said. 


A small change in pH, or the acidity or alkalinity of water-soluble substances, also affects water quality – similar to that found in 2014 in Flint, Michigan. That ongoing water quality crisis has impacted many people and their livelihoods, Messer said. 

“You will typically find that lower-income areas have worse water quality compared to higher-income areas. This is the same in Cape Town, South Africa; the same throughout the U.S.; and the same in the Midwest,” Messer said. 

She has chosen to focus her research on rural and low-income communities and how their water qualities and overall health can be improved in the future. 


“Nebraska is fantastic when it comes to stakeholders and people interested in water. They know their water better than anyone,” Messer said. Those individuals want to work with university researchers to improve water quality and also improve their crops. “The quality of the water you apply on your crops does impact your crop production,” she added. 

Messer collaborates with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and the Natural Resources Districts in Nebraska to improve water quality. 

She also works with the Lincoln (Nebraska) Public Schools, educating children about water quality and why it is important. Children can even be looking at water quality in their own homes and at streams in their neighborhoods, she said. Messer also is working with pre-kindergarten children.

“I think it’s incredibly important to start young. Pre-kindergarten is critical – and usually, they are the ones who are the most impacted by degraded water quality,” she said, since early childhood is when the brain is really developing. Teaching children to recognize issues, understand management practices and ask the right questions is critical. “They can take it home and teach their families,” she said.

After all, water is important. 

“I believe we will continue to find that water quality emerges as one of the top priorities for how to provide clean water and good food for our children and families throughout the world,” Messer said.

Consider the following:

  A human can survive about 100 hours without water

  A human can survive about 21 days without food

  Eighty percent of the world’s water supports agriculture

  Fresh water only can be used for drinking and for irrigation; salt water cannot

  Nitrogen is essential for growing crops, but can contaminate groundwater

  It takes about 20 years for nitrogen to show up in groundwater

  Lower-socioeconomic areas typically have worse water quality than higher-income areas