When a West Virginia storage tank spilled thousands of gallons of chemicals into the Elk River in January 2014, environmental engineers were among the first to respond. When a breach at an abandoned gold mine sent millions of gallons of acidic mine waste into the Colorado River in August of this year, environmental engineers again were called into action to monitor and mitigate the damage.
And with new reports from NASA that underground aquifers are emptying at a record pace, environmental engineers will be the ones who create technologies for ensuring adequate water supplies for human and industrial consumption.
Environmental engineers are in high demand: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 15 percent increase in employment of environmental engineers over a 10-year period ending in 2022.
The University of Arizona is responding with a new Bachelor of Science to train them.
"The very fabric of our nation’s economic and environmental sustainability hinges on a precarious balance of water supply reliability and security in the face of climate change and increasing urbanization," said Shane Snyder, professor of chemical and environmental engineering and a renowned expert in water reuse technologies.
"This new program will train students for the jobs of the future. It will teach them how to develop and implement sustainable engineering solutions."
The new major, launched this fall, is open to eligible freshmen and sophomores at the UA. The application deadline for students in the college is Nov. 6.
The college’s well-established graduate programs in environmental engineering are ranked in the top 25 percent by peer institutions, according to U.S. News & World Report. Now undergraduates can fully tap into the expertise of faculty and top-tier research projects in environmental engineering as well as chemical engineering.
"The UA is a great place to study environmental engineering. I have seen how environmental engineers can have a positive impact on the world, and the College of Engineering has put me on a path where I can do the same," said Jeannie Wilkening, a chemical engineering senior who has done research with environmental engineering faculty.
The program is based in the college’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, one of only a few departments at U.S. universities to integrate these two closely connected fields.
"Most environmental engineering programs are housed in civil engineering departments, which emphasize infrastructural challenges," said professor Reyes Sierra, director of the new program. "Chemical engineers have a proven track record in developing biochemical and other process technologies, which are critical for targeted treatment systems."
Jim Field, former chair of the department, added, "Our students will graduate with a particular skill set employers are going to appreciate."
Students in the new program won’t just learn about the latest advances in water reuse or safe removal of hazardous wastes. They will directly on these issues at research facilities such as WEST, a large-scale pilot treatment and research plant located off campus and operated jointly by the University and Pima County.
"One of the most exciting aspects of our new program is that the students will be some of the first doing research at the new Water & Energy Sustainable Technology facility," Sierra said. "To our knowledge, this level of engineering engagement with real wastewater, in real time, is not available at any other environmental engineering program in the United States."
Students also may participate in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences UA Superfund Research Project, with nine projects on hazardous waste risk and remediation in the Southwest. Other research opportunities for environmental engineering students at the UA include the BIO5 Institute, Institute of the Environment, Lowell Institute of Mineral Resources, Semiconductor Research Corporation Engineering Research Center for Environmentally Benign Semiconductor Manufacturing, and Arizona Research Institute of Solar Energy.