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Caring for Minnesota's Water

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Alumnus Daniel Engstrom: Environmental Science and Assisting Policy Makers

Daniel Engstom  
Daniel Engstrom

“As scientists, we need be aware of society’s needs. People need to eat; we need fuel; we need recreation; and we need a clean environment. Our job as scientists is to provide the data to the public and policy makers so decisions can be made responsibly.”


For decades, Dan Engstrom ’71, ’75, has been conducting research on lakes, rivers, and bogs across Minnesota — Lake Pepin, the Mississippi River, the Minnesota River, and Lake St. Croix to name a few. As director of the St. Croix Watershed Research Station and adjunct professor in the department of Earth Sciences and the Water Resource Science program at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, he has conducted and overseen dozens of research projects.

Water quality is of particular concern. “If it is in the air and on the land, it gets into the water,” Engstrom said. His research centers on the use of lake sediment records to understand long-term environmental change, particularly how human activities affect water quality, atmospheric chemistry, and their relationship to plant and animal life.

Activism at UMD

Engstrom's quest for answers about science and society began in Duluth. “I was at UMD during a heady time,” Engstrom said. "My classmates and I were heavily involved in environmental issues.” At that time, UMD students worked on projects that had an impact on the nation. When the first Earth Day was celebrated in April 1970, Engstrom helped organize an event at UMD. He also helped establish the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG).

He was one of the founders of UMD's Students for Environmental Defense and along with their faculty advisor, John Green, professor of geology, testified at hearings about taconite tailings in Lake Superior. Fellow students included Brent Haglund ’70 who is now Director of the Sand County Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin and Rolf Peterson ’70, professor emeritus for Michigan Technological University and wildlife ecologist on Isle Royale. Haglund, Peterson, and Engstrom worked on the early planning to establish Voyageurs National Park. All three attended sessions on setting mining, timber, and motorized use parameters for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. UMD rewarded Engstrom for student leadership and presented him with the Sieur Du Luth award in 1971.

Career as a Researcher
His early activism informed his direction. When Engstrom talks about his career, he lists published studies primarily conducted in Minnesota as well as those in arctic Alaska, New England, and Florida. For all of his work, Engstrom said, “This is science that matters. We are able to provide the data that provides the foundation for good policy decisions. Industry, agriculture, and mining all have an economic impact and environmental consequences.” 

Engstrom’s projects center on atmospheric mercury deposition and cycling, nutrient inputs and sedimentation in large rivers, sediment sources in agricultural watersheds, and the natural evolution of lakes and landscapes. Funding comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, Great Lakes Commission, MN Pollution Control Agency, the Metropolitan Council Environmental Services, and other sources.

In the late 1980s while Engstrom was conducting studies on  lakes in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, he was offered an opportunity to work with core samples from Minnesota to help determine historical changes in atmospheric mercury deposition. “I thought the mercury work sounded uninteresting – at least in comparison to the spectacular landscapes of southeastern Alaska,” Engstrom said. “I thought mercury would be similar to other atmospheric pollutants – it would increase with industrial activity … and that was all. Well, it turned out to be the most fascinating environmental puzzle imaginable.” Nearly three decades and dozens of research studies later, Engstrom is still going strong in the mercury field and is widely recognized as one of its leading experts.

Case Study: Lake Pepin

Engstrom's experience with core studies has led to a major research focus on the Mississippi River and has yielded profound results. Take one of his more recent projects, understanding the rapid sediment accumulation in Lake Pepin. The health of Lake Pepin shows the health of its watershed, which stretches over almost 50 percent of Minnesota. Land-use practices here in the upper Midwest impact water quality of the Mississippi River all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

To help understand historic changes to the river,  Engstrom was commissioned to study the sediment records in Lake Pepin, at 40 square miles of surface area, the largest natural lake in the Mississippi River system. “These first studies showed that the lake was filling with sediment at an alarming rate – roughly10 times faster than in the pre-settlement past,” he said.

Engstrom and his team of scientists then carried their research up the Minnesota River and the Mississippi River to trace the source of the problem. They took samples to “fingerprint where the sediment was coming from, they looked closely at changes in river flows and climate, and they took cores from dozens of other lakes throughout the watershed. “The results were startling,” Engstrom said. “Lake Pepin is threatened primarily by agricultural erosion, but not from fields as you might expect, but rather from the river channels themselves. Our agricultural rivers are becoming more erosive primarily because of widespread hydrological alterations such as wetland drainage.” This altered hydrology partnered in recent years with increased rainfall means more water, faster flowing water, and more erosion. Engstrom predicts that if sediment inputs continue at their current rate, Lake Pepin will disappear entirely in just a few centuries.  

A Solid Foundation
Engstrom went to Proctor High School and said he was always interested in science. “UMD was a small commuter school with 3,000 students, but the dedication the faculty showed to students was remarkable,” he said. Engstrom, who received his bachelors degree in 1971 and his masters degree in 1975, both in zoology, remembers two teachers with special regard, Blanchard Krogstad, his undergraduate advisor, and Hollie Collins, both professors of biology. “When I was inducted into the UMD Academy of Science and Engineering in 2011, Hollie came to the event, Engstrom said. “That was a real honor for me.”

After UMD, Engstrom received his Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of Minnesota, working side by side with internationally known researchers such as Herbert Wright, now Regent’s Professor Emeritus of Geology, Ecology, and Botany. 

Engstrom is married to Barbara Coffin, associate director of public programs for the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History, and executive producer of the award-winning documentaries, Minnesota: A History of the Land, and Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story. They have two children, Eric a software engineer in Minneapolis and Berit Anna, a wilderness canoe guide at YMCA Camp Menogyn on the edge of the BWCAW.

Engstrom credits UMD for giving him a solid foundation. “At UMD, the study of science and care for the environment went hand in hand,” he said. “As scientists, we need be aware of society’s needs. People need to eat; we need fuel; we need recreation; and we need a clean environment. Our job as scientists is to provide the data to the public and policy makers so decisions can be made responsibly.” Finding a balance between the needs of society and the protection of the natural world is vital. “Communicating our research findings is as important as the research itself,” Engstrom said.

Written by Cheryl Reitan, June 2012

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