University of Wisconsin–Madison

Notes From The Director 2016

Water@UW-Madison: Building a New Water Network for the University and the State

Stephen Carpenter, Director, UW-Madison Center for Limnology. Photo courtesy of UW Communications

by Stephen Carpenter @FreshwaterSteve, Limnology News – Number 25, Fall 2016

Water is a defining feature of Wisconsin’s landscape. Our state is bordered by the two largest Laurentian Great Lakes and one of the world’s great rivers.  Wisconsin boasts one of the world’s highest concentrations of inland lakes, with over 15,000, in addition to 82,000 miles of rivers and streams.  Our groundwater resources are estimated at about 1.2 million billion gallons, enough to submerge the state in 100 feet of water if it were above ground.  Water resources not only underpin the economy, but in many ways characterize the people and places of Wisconsin.  Likewise, human activities strongly affect the quantity and quality of our water.  This interaction between people and diverse types of water resources and systems represents an array of challenges as well as associated study and inquiry.

Readers of this newsletter know that the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a rich tradition of scholarship on freshwater topics. Origins trace to traditions of limnological research established by E.A. Birge and Chancey Juday from 1875-1944.  Based in the Zoology Department, Birge and Juday collaborated with botanists, chemists, geologists, microbiologists, physicists, and soil scientists in diverse departments of the University. The field of groundwater hydrology is traced back to UW-Madison through the pioneering work of Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin, Franklin H. King, and Charles Sumner Slichter in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  From the water engineering perspective, Daniel W. Mead became head of the department of hydraulic and sanitary engineering in 1904, and is credited with the first textbook in hydrology.  G. Fred Lee started the first and only graduate degree program in water chemistry in the U.S. in 1962.

Today, UW-Madison has well over 100 principal investigators, mostly faculty, engaged in scholarship focused on freshwater. This remarkable level of research activity is scattered among more than a dozen departments in at least five colleges of the University. The breadth and diversity of these research programs is a great strength of UW-Madison. However, our freshwater research may be less than the sum of its parts because we miss opportunities to collaborate and raise the visibility of UW-Madison’s programs.

Recognizing the need for stronger self-organization among freshwater scholars, a group of faculty volunteers from across campus has launched Water@UW-Madison. The goal of  Water@UW-Madison is to improve opportunities for collaboration among freshwater scholars and raise the visibility of freshwater scholarship in the university, the state, and beyond. Water@UW-Madison is not an administrative superstructure; instead it connects the strengths of existing campus institutions and individual investigators to improve networking, collaboration, and outreach. For example, we produce a weekly newsletter of campus events on freshwater, and organize campus-wide events on freshwater scholarship. Water@UW-Madison is overseen by faculty volunteers and a staff position based at the CFL and funded through the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education.
The CFL, meanwhile, continues to thrive. 2016 was “the year of toxic algae blooms” in the Northern Hemisphere; CFL researchers (and, unfortunately, blooming Wisconsin waters) are at the center of this crisis. This year we gained insight on Wisconsin’s walleye decline through our collaborative research with USGS, WDNR, and UW-Stevens Point scientists. CFL researchers made key contributions to understanding migrations of aquatic organisms, both wanted (such as spawning migrations of native fishes) and unwanted (such as invasions by non-native species). Our scientists expanded the use of high-frequency sensors to analyze large-scale patterns in big rivers and early warning signals of algae blooms. You can read about these findings and more in this newsletter and on our blog.

Just like the early work of Birge and Juday, much of what we’ve accomplished this year was in collaboration with other UW departments. We hope that Water@UW-Madison can maintain and grow this culture of collaboration and look forward to many more years of working alongside our fellow freshwater-affiliated colleagues.