Formed in 1964, The University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute is the primary link between academic water experts and those who manage and use water. Photo: University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives and Record Management Services
| Water Resources Research
Water Resources Institute Turns 50
Abundant, good water is essential to continued economic growth and progress. The Congress has found that we have entered a period in which acute water shortages are hampering our industries, our agriculture, our recreation, and our individual health and happiness.
By Marie Zhuikov
These are the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson as he announced the approval of the federal Water Resources Research Act in 1964. The act ultimately formed the University of Wisconsin’s Water Resources Institute (WRI) and 53 other university-based programs of research, outreach and education across the country. With funding from the U.S. Geological Survey, these programs are dedicated to solving water resource problems. As a state-federal-academic partnership, Wisconsin’s institute is also supported by the Wisconsin Groundwater Research and Monitoring Program. The WRI is a sister program to Wisconsin Sea Grant, operated under the umbrella organization of the Aquatic Sciences Center.
With nearly 1 million acres of lakes and more than 5 million acres of wetlands, Wisconsin ranks among the top in the nation for water resources. And we can’t forget about the 1.2 quadrillion gallons of water that are underground. The WRI provides competitive grants for research, offers training and aids entry of new research scientists into water resources fields, and transfers project results to water managers and the public.
“Water Resources Institutes across the country are small but very powerful programs,” said Jim Hurley, current director of the WRI—a title he holds along with director of the Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute. “It’s amazing the number of ways the programs use the small federal investment to manage other programs. Here, it helps us manage the state groundwater program.
“Besides that, it’s one of the only federally funded programs designed to support the next generation of water resource managers,” Hurley said. “It’s got a lot of Congressional support, but I’d love to see it grow.”
Currently, the WRI supports the work of faculty, staff and students at UW-Madison, Milwaukee and Platteville. Recent research highlights include:
- WRI research led to the design of a water-purifying system that destroys a variety of contaminants in drinking water by a photocatalytic process that uses ultraviolet light.
- The devices received a U.S. patent and the resulting Wisconsin-based company has attracted more than $7 million in investment capital.
- A WRI researcher determined that wetlands play a vital role in removing nitrogen from the environment. That removal is important because excess nitrogen in waters can lead to growth of harmful algae or fish kills.
- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy are changing the design of covers and barrier systems for low-level radioactive waste disposal and uranium mine tailings sites across the country based on WRI research findings. The researcher found that the closer a cover mimics environmental conditions surrounding it, the longer it will last.
- Elevated levels of strontium have been found in deep wells in Brown, Calumet, Oconto and Outagamie counties. This natural element can cause rickets and damage tooth enamel in young people. Thanks to WRI research, this important public health matter was investigated and publicized.