The Water Sciences Lab – a Nebraska asset for 25 years

By: Cara Oldenhuis

The Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute (WFI) and Nebraska Water Center (NWC) are both known state and worldwide for their advancements in research, policy, education and outreach related to water and food security issues. 

An important component of this work is water quality and where the NWC’s Nebraska Water Sciences Laboratory (WSL) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln comes into play.

A 6,000 square-foot facility located on UNL’s East Campus, WSL supports all water-related research within the NU system and at all state colleges, including research conducted by WFI and the NWC. The lab uses both technical and analytical instruments to conduct experiments and tests on soil, surface water and groundwater for environmental and water-related research.

And from research conducted by faculty, post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students, WSL has proven itself to be a valuable asset in the area of water expertise and technology.

“The facility houses staff and instrumentation that are used to train students and scientists engaged in research to improve how we use and conserve water resources in Nebraska and beyond,” director Daniel Snow said. “The availability of the Water Sciences Laboratory has enabled University of Nebraska faculty from all of the campuses to obtain highly competitive research funding, thereby increasing the visibility and impact of NU water research.”

Snow joined the lab at its founding in 1990 under now-retired UNL hydrochemist Roy Spalding. He assumed management of the WSL more than 10 years ago.    

An integral part of the Nebraska Water Center, WSL supports both the mission of the WFI and NWC, as well as other public and private projects throughout the state and nation. To do this, the WSL provides specialized analyses for trace organics and stable isotopes found in samples of water both locally and domestically. The lab also provides more routine methods of measuring water quality.

The facility contains six laboratories, all of which allow highly skilled staff to use advanced instrumentation to find water contaminants, even at the microscopic level. While particles may be small, down to parts per trillion, the research findings make waves at the state, national and global level.

The laboratory mainly focuses on two types of research methods. Approximately $2.5 million worth of analytical equipment is used for highly sensitive analysis of “emerging contaminants” and automated methods are used for stable isotope “fingerprinting.”

The first method relies on mass spectrometry to measure low concentrations of water contaminants. The facility contains two gas and two liquid chromatography systems for organic contaminant analysis. This method can help researches discover the origin, transformation and movement in these contaminant elements.

The analysis method is a “fingerprinting” system to determine sources of groundwater contaminants. Stable isotope methods include analysis of dissolved and solid carbonates, as well as analysis of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen isotopes in nitrate and phosphates. The isotope analysis also helps scientists understand both the chemical reactions and metabolic processes of these contaminants. The lab includes more than four machines for analysis testing.

The WSL was founded, in part, through a state mandate and funding called the Nebraska Research Initiative (NRI) that continues to support NU water research today.  

Under the leadership of Spalding and now Snow, the lab’s capabilities have greatly evolved and improved, with modern equipment and advanced methodologies. The expertise of the lab staff and its analytical capabilities make WSL one of the foremost facilities not only in Nebraska, but nationally and internationally, as well.

“I think the University of Nebraska is a leader in water research, especially as it relates to understanding and improving how we use water for agriculture,” Snow said. “The research conducted in Nebraska over the last two to three decades helps inform choices for water management practices that can improve water quality for many beneficial uses, including drinking, recreation and habitat.”

For more information on the lab, go to watercenter.unl.edu or email Snow at dsnow1@unl.edu.