John Gulliver: Runoff Wrangler

Stormwater falling on paved and other impermeable surfaces is the main source of urban runoff. That water is laden with nutrients and minerals that are detrimental to the water quality of rivers and lakes.

IonE resident fellow John Gulliver, a professor in the College of Science and Engineering, has spent more than a decade working on ways to protect water from the ravages of runoff.

John Gulliver headshot photo 300Gulliver came to the U from California to attend graduate school in civil and environmental engineering, focusing on water issues. After receiving his Ph.D., Gulliver stayed on as a professor and, based out of St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, began researching ways to control stormwater runoff. Gulliver's research teams have invented several devices that are currently being employed by state agencies and municipalities, including the SAFL Baffle, a gadget installed in storm drains to capture sediment; the Iron-Enhanced Sand Filter, which removes phosphorus from runoff; and the Modified Phillip-Dunne Infiltrometer, developed with Professor John Nieber of the U's Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering department, which measures soil infiltration rates.

Bruce Wilson began working with Gulliver about 12 years ago when Wilson was a state project manager for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The agency sets nutrient load limits from runoff to protect the state's waterways but didn't have a sense of whether drainage ditches, employed to divert water from roads, were effective at soaking up storm water.

"I was charged with getting projects done better, faster, cheaper," says Wilson. "Storm water projects are expensive. Infiltration rates vary widely between soil types, and measuring infiltration rates can be cumbersome and time consuming. The best and most cost effective way to capture water is to filter it on site."

Using Gulliver's infiltrometer, the agency discovered that swales indeed absorb runoff, reducing the need for more expensive systems such as stormwater ponds.

John Gulliver book cover photo - 300


"MnDOT only has the right-of-way along the roads, where the ditches are installed. If we weren't counting the ditch as contributing to runoff capture, we might have to purchase more land to build larger containment systems," says Barbara Loida, a Minnesota Department of Transportation Metro District engineer.

Loida credits Gulliver and the Iron-Enhanced Sand Filter with helping MnDOT meet its goals of reducing phosphorous runoff into water bodies. Excess phosphorus causes algae blooms in rivers and lakes, degrading water clarity and depleting the oxygen needs of aquatic species. The filter takes out 90 percent of dissolved and particulate phosphorus, according to Gulliver.

On October 15, Gulliver (pictured left with colleague Heinz Stefan) received the David Ford Water Resources Award for Outstanding Service in Water Resources at the Minnesota Water Resources Conference. Photo courtesy of Christine Hanson.

As an IonE resident fellow, Gulliver expects to continue to reach across disciplines to provide practical applications to his research. "The IonE resident fellowship has allowed me to continue community service, such as outreach activities, and provided an opportunity to collaborate with environmental faculty that I previously did not know," he says. One outreach project Gulliver contributes to is Stormwater UPDATES, a newsletter highlighting related projects of U researchers.

Gulliver's work has led Minnesota to become a national leader in stormwater applied research, says Wilson. "He attacks the problem with good science to find a solution. He makes it all happen. A Minnesota treasure, that's what I call him."

Reprinted with permission from the Institute on the Environment Eye on Earth blog.