Effective water management can protect public health

This blog is part of a series about IWA Fellows and Distinguished Fellows, their career journeys and achievements, ambitions and the COVID-19 challenges in the water sector. In this article, IWA Distinguished Fellow Michael K. Stenstrom talks about his career and outlines his views on public health and the role of water management.


Covid-19 has reminded us of the close links between the environment, human actions and public health, that have too often been neglected. At the start of my career in the 1970s, seeing the effects of the Minamata Disease, which is caused by mercury poisoning, had a profound influence on me. This triggered my determination to focus on environmental engineering as a way to improve public health. The first ever Earth Day, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US and the Clean Water Act amendments are all moments that deeply inspired me.

While at Clemson University I met John Andrews, an environmental engineering professor, active IWA member and chief editor of Water Research who introduced me to the IWA. Since then, I have been determined to make a positive impact as an environmental engineer, researcher and educator, which has been possible thanks to IWA’s support.

My biggest achievement has been improving wastewater management for municipalities and industries in the most cost effective way. My work on aeration and the cooperation with manufacturers, municipalities, industries, and the ASCE oxygen transfer standard committee have improved aeration efficiency. This resulted in the reduction of energy consumption at treatment plants by as much as 50%, therefore also reducing their environmental impact.  In recent years I have been demonstrating to treatment agencies that operation at longer solids retention time, even when nitrification is not required, has economic and treatment benefits, including energy efficiency, trace organic removal and filtration efficiency. I am now focusing on antibiotic resistance at treatment plants and understanding how to mitigate or eliminate it.

I believe that the water sector can play a big role in fighting against the pandemic, for example from technologies that enable us to track COVID-19 in wastewaters. Tracking information about COVID-19 in wastewaters has showed us how infections can be detected and better managed. In this sense, COVID-19 can be seen as providing an opportunity to use and develop important tools to protect public health. A seminar titled “From MLVSS to Molecular Biology” by Professor Jenkins of University of California, Berkeley showed how advances in molecular biology can bring new concepts and tools to water protection. This new technology should help manage and reduce negative impacts of future pandemics too.

In the next 10 years I expect to continue researching, consulting and teaching. I hope that my work will continue to play a pivotal role in the industry and I hope to keep collaborating with treatment agencies to improve wastewater management. As an IWA Distinguished Fellow, I want to engage with governments to advocate for better water quality, especially in developing countries. My ambition is that effective water management can increasingly be seen as a way to improve and protect public health.

Michael Stenstrom

Distinguished Professor at University of California; Civil and Environmental Engineering Department
IWA Distinguished Fellow. A Distinguished Professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at UCLA with 40 years of experience! He works in various aspects environmental engineering related to water and water pollution control. Read full biography