David Fairbairn moves from WRS student to MPCA scientist, contributing critical research along the way


MPCA Scientist David Fairbairn in his element

A key part of the Water Resource Center’s (WRC) mission is to educate the next generation of water professionals. Through its Water Resources Science Graduate Program (WRS), WRC graduates between 15 and 20 students on the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses every year. 

Most of these students go on to become leaders in Minnesota’s water resource management—and some establish themselves as important researchers from the start.

Now a research scientist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, David Fairbairn received his doctorate in Water Resources Science in June 2015. Interested in the connections between environmental chemistry and the health of humans and broader biological communities, Fairbairn received his Master of Science degree in Environmental Public Health from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2008 and worked as an environmental health specialist before entering the WRS program in 2009.

As a new doctoral student at the University, Fairbairn served as research assistant and author of several background papers for the groundbreaking Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework, a comprehensive roadmap for Minnesota’s water resources presented to the Minnesota Legislature in 2011.

On the heels of the Framework project, Fairbairn’s primary doctoral research project—studying the of sources of contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) in the Zumbro River watershed—was awarded a grant by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. This project was proposed by former WRC Co-director and Environmental Health Sciences Professor Deborah Swackhamer, who served as the project’s principal investigator and Fairbairn’s primary advisor; William Arnold and Paige Novak, professors in the University’s department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo-Engineering; and Pamela Rice and William Koskinen, scientists with the U.S.  Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service and adjunct professors in the University’s department of Soil, Water and Climate.

Fairbairn’s interest in environmental chemistry, ecology, and public health spurred his interest in contaminants of emerging concern (CECs), which include a broad range of hormones, pharmaceuticals, and other chemicals associated with residential, commercial, agricultural, and industrial products and activities.  These chemicals are not commonly regulated in the environment but may cause deleterious effects such as endocrine disruption in aquatic and human systems, even at trace concentrations.

The South Fork of the Zumbro River, which winds through southeastern Minnesota and the City of Rochester, is associated with a variety of land uses within its watershed. With its urban and suburban landscapes, cropland, pastures, and hardwood forests, this study area offered an ideal venue in which to research the sources, transport, and delivery of CECs in a complex regional ecosystem.

Fairbairn and co-workers employed a range of techniques and equipment to collect more than 400 automated, passive, and grab samples of water and sediment for CEC analysis that together represent approximately 100 days from January 2011 to November 2012. In-stream flow and other parameters were measured with equipment deployed by the research group, along with existing stream monitoring equipment maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Sample collection and processing, laboratory analysis, data processing and other key work was completed with the assistance of several WRS graduate and undergraduate students and staff.

Fairbairn’s study included some surprises. “We found some CECs where you might not expect to find them —including highly soluble chemicals like caffeine and acetaminophen occurring in the river sediments,” he says. “We also found the commercial-industrial chemical nonylphenol, not only in the urban areas where it would be expected, but also in a small and primarily agricultural area of the watershed. Although nonylphenol is primarily considered an urban contaminant due to its common use as a detergent surfactant, it is also used in some pesticide formulations, which may explain this agricultural occurrence. ”

The statistician in Fairbairn is also pleased that their methodology was on the mark: “We were able to statistically test the mass balances for 16 CECs using seven sampling events at the same four sites.  For the majority of our chemicals, the downstream loads were well explained by the combined inputs of Rochester’s wastewater treatment plant and the other upstream areas. This reinforces the observed links between CEC occurrences and land uses in the region—because we showed that CEC concentrations vary with land use, while also showing that we accounted for the lion’s share of these CECs’ sources.”

Fairbairn hopes his doctoral research will inform policy and management to better understand the measurement, transport, and impact of CECs on Minnesota’s watersheds. “This study doesn’t say what kind of deleterious things are happening,” he says. “But it can help identify and predict in-stream CEC patterns based on land use, location, time, and type of sample. Paired with knowledge of CEC effects, this research can help us understand exposures and target mitigation actions.”

He describes his study as, “the single greatest educational and professional growth experience I’d ever had.” More importantly, he says he’s grateful for the chance to work side-by-side with some of the country’s leading researchers: “The team I worked with was just incredible—it’s an invaluable experience that I’ll never forget.”