Former WRC co-director Deb Swackhamer leaves a clear vision of Minnesota's water future


"I took this outside of McNeal Hall, and it's always been my favorite. Deb was usually in constant motion. This was a quieter, softer moment." said Chris Hansen, Minnegram editor.

Former Water Resources Center director Deb Swackhamer passed away on April 23, 2021, the day following Earth day. As someone who dedicated her life to protecting water and the environment, the timing of her death was a bittersweet coincidence. Deb was a highly decorated and respected water researcher, specializing in studying processes affecting the behavior of chemicals in the environment. Deb was also a highly sought-after instructor and mentor. Former WRS masters student Valerie Were said: "I credit a part of the scientist I am today to Deb. I took her environmental chemistry class in my first semester in graduate school, and she was on both my master’s and Ph.D. examining committees. I will miss her mentorship which extended beyond my graduation."

A crowning achievement of Deb’s work at the WRC was her lead authorship of the 2011Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework. The Framework identified the most important Minnesota water issues, invited expert input hundreds of professionals and stakeholders, and created a blueprint for water policy for the future. In succeeding years, Deb was pleased that many Framework recommendations were enacted by the legislature. Upon hearing of Deb’s passing, Framework project coordinator Jean Coleman said, “Because of her love for Minnesota and its water, Deb had a vision for a clean water future that is as urgent today as it was a decade ago, if not more so. She had a gift for communicating water science to everyone, as well as making everyone she worked with feel brilliant. We have lost one Minnesota's water defenders.”

No stranger to the halls of government, Deb was also a master communicator who could frame her research goals in accessible language when testifying before the legislature or taking calls from radio listeners. Former WCCO TV anchor Don Shelby admired her deft media skills: "Frankly, I had never heard anyone so skilled at making complicated public policy issues and very dense science completely understandable. She didn’t speak in jargon, she spoke in people-talk, and she never insulted the audience by trying to oversimplify." 

Former WRC co-director Faye Sleeper is grateful for her partnership with Deb: "I admired her strong ethical sense in both science and leadership, her deft navigation of University protocol, and her mix of thinking both analytically and creatively. As co-directors we divided the work of leading and managing, but always came together on major decisions for the center such as budget, human resources and policies. I always knew that once we arrived at a decision, we stood together and that she would 'have my back'".   

A public memorial is being planned for later this year.

Donate to the scholarship in honor of Deb