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“A Glass Half Full”

A visit with Enos Inniss, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

By Tanya Sneddon
Published: - Topics: research pilot scale laboratory system water regulations

Ever since Enos Inniss came to MU as an assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering a short time ago, he has kept remarkably busy on various research projects involving water quality and safety.

As regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency change the drinking water standards, water plants around the nation must adjust to meet the new requirements. One of Inniss’ main research projects seeks ways to make the transition to new regulations in a quicker, more effective manner. Working directly with local water treatment plants like the Columbia facility, Inniss and a team of graduate students are designing models they can use to run tests to determine which type of system would be most flexible as new regulations are introduced. “The way those systems are designed and operated is very traditional,” Inniss explains. As new regulations appear, staff at water plants need help to understand how much they may need to modify their operation and what sort of upgrades will be required. Inniss’ job is to help answer these kinds of questions. “What they’re doing is already tried and true," he says. "The university offers the opportunity to look at something that’s innovative."

Using laboratory and pilot models, Inniss and his team bring the water plant into the lab, where they manipulate standard water quality parameters such as pH, temperature, redox potential, conductivity, turbidity, and disinfectant by-products. “We’re essentially trying to compare the quality of the source water to the regulations," he says. "In some cases, we are taking some things out, but in others you may have to actually add to the water.”

Throughout this process, Inniss works in direct partnership with the water plant personnel. “We want to have a lot of interaction with the designers and engineers who are involved,” he emphasizes. He stresses that it must be a collaborative partnership, where the interested parties exchange information rather than dictate results. “When a new regulation is coming out, we can start to speak to the feasibility of a facility being able to meet that,” he adds. And meeting these regulations is of utmost importance as far as public health is involved.

Inniss believes the sort of partnership he has developed among the regulatory agency, MU, and the Columbia water plant should be imitated by other communities throughout the nation. The benefits of such an arrangement are many, he notes. To start, it is important to involve the practicing engineers who will actually implement changes to the system throughout the design process. This ensures that the proposed modifications will be compatible with the existing systems.

A second benefit is the hands-on education that this type of partnership provides for students. “I want my students to understand the applications and what opportunities are out there,” he explains. “By having good interactions with other folks in the industry, at the water facilities, at the consulting firms, even at the regulatory agencies, they’re able to get that perspective on what they will need to know, whom they will need to interact with, in order to be a good practicing engineer.” Finally, the university community benefits as well: “I think the university needs to have a very strong role in the community. They need to understand that the university is there to help with the education and awareness of not only the students who are on campus, but the community that surrounds the campus as well."

This is not the only opportunity Inniss’ students have to gain real-life experience in the engineering field. “We’ve gone to classes and said, 'Hey, we have these research projects, we have these ideas, is anyone interested?' And it’s refreshing to see how many students say, 'Yes, I would like to understand what you’re doing',” Inniss says. Undergraduates as well as graduate students can participate in various research projects, always with future goals in mind: “Too often they hear, 'Take everything you learned in school and just forget about it when you get out into the real world.' So these students are eager to get into the lab, get out into the field, and learn through those experiences.”

Seeing his students’ excitement over this active learning has had a lasting effect on Inniss himself. “I’m starting to get much more interested in teaching from a problem-based perspective because now that I have problems that I’m trying to solve from a research standpoint, maybe I can take some of those to the classroom and try to incorporate them into the lesson,” he observes. “We’re both surprised - both the professor and the students - at how much the students can contribute.”

Another project that Inniss has been working on involves stormwater. “There’s some concern about the impact of having a lot of paving," he explains. "You have roads, driveways, parking lots, things falling on those pavings, and then they get washed with the stormwater into streams." To combat such concerns he is researching how to control pollution within this scenario.

In addition, Inniss is also looking at how chemicals that are used to disinfect drinking water affect overall water quality. One example is chlorine. The importance of these chemicals is paramount, as he notes: “It just so happens that because of the use of chlorine, from a disinfectant standpoint we have the best water in the world. A lot of waterborne diseases are essentially gone in the United States because we’re using chlorine in the water.” However, these benefits come at a cost, as Inniss is discovering. When such chemicals are used, they may also introduce disinfectant by-products, or DBPs, into the water. “Disinfection by-products are something that a lot of communities are starting to deal with as they watch the levels come up,” he notes. At this point, Inniss is trying to find a balance between adding helpful disinfectants to the water and then dealing with the negative results that can occur.

Inniss first became interested in engineering at a young age. In third grade, a guest speaker came to his class to talk about the profession. “I thought, wow, that’s really interesting. You know, third grade…it was either that or being a fireman. The idea stuck in my head from that point,” he recalls. His interest in structures and architecture grew over the years and he eventually found himself in civil engineering. After conducting undergraduate research, he was exposed to some environmental engineering as well. “It wasn’t until I got out into the industry that I began to realize there were problems with water quality,” he observes. In addition to research in that area, Inniss also teaches related courses at MU: "Fundamentals of Environmental Engineering" and an upper-level course entitled "Introduction to Water Quality."