Friday, March 23, 2018

BLOG: Groundwater Perspectives - Part 1

by Robert Swanson, retired Director, USGS Nebraska Water Science Center

Bob Swanson speaks at the 2017 Groundwater Foundation
National Conference.
When Jennifer Wemhoff from the Groundwater Foundation asked if I would write a blog, I thought, “This is it, I’ve made it.....I’m old!” And, yes, I just retired from a 38-year career in hydrology with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), so I guess the thought was warranted. 

As the title suggests, this is first of a series that I hope to inform the members and followers of the Groundwater Foundation on different perspectives of how groundwater has influenced my life and career.

I can even take my connection to groundwater a couple of decades further back to predate my employment at the USGS. Like the vast majority of Nebraskans, my family drank water from a domestic well and our livestock drank water supplied by windmills. However, one of my earliest memories is watching our brand new irrigation well being drilled in the early 1960s on the family farm. The first time that propane powered engine roared to life, began pulling 600 gallons per minute from the Red Willow Creek alluvial aquifer, and flowed through gated pipe and irrigation ditches was in every way a miracle to me. That well sits within a few hundred yards of the outcrop of the Ogallala formation, part of the High Plains regional aquifer system that spans parts of eight states in the Great Plains.

Irrigation didn’t make our lives any easier, just the opposite. We didn’t have a center pivot that a person could simply throw a switch and effortlessly irrigate 160 acres. No, we owned about a quarter mile of 8-inch aluminum pipe. We picked it up in the morning, loaded it onto a wagon and moved it to one of a half dozen fields in the 80 odd acres we had under irrigation. We irrigated that field through the day and night, perhaps longer if it was a large field, and the next day we repeated the task. Then the whole orchestrated routine began all over again...four, sometimes fives times during the summer. It was backbreaking work in which the entire family took part. Once the pipe was laid at the edge of the field, we would open, or set, the gates to distribute cold, clean, water to thirsty corn, milo, soybeans, and alfalfa. Our hands would be touching that water, our bare feet sank in the cool mud. My brother and sisters and I would crawl down, to us, endless rows of water flowing under a canopy of green to the other end of the field looking for and plugging gopher holes that intercepted the water from intended purpose. Yes, I have a connection to groundwater.

Irrigation didn’t make us significantly wealthier. It did, however, save us from the unpredictable and harsh penalties that drought visits on farms in the Great Plains. It helped alleviate the perpetual boom and bust crop cycles. Irrigation arguably allowed for me to go to college to pursue a career in hydrogeology. In fact, all four of the Swanson kids would attend college and become the first of our family name, that immigrated from Sweden, to do so.

Years later, my father would voluntarily retire that irrigation well as groundwater declines in our corner of Nebraska necessitated sacrifices to maintain water levels. Much of the earth that once produced grains and hay has been fallowed and returned to grassland. It remains, however, that my family and I literally owe our lives to the magic that resides in water. 

So, now you have an idea of the appreciation and reverence for which I hold this resource and what provides the backstory for future installments of this series. Next relationship to the Groundwater Foundation and how it shaped a life dedicated to the study of water.

Robert Swanson was Director of the USGS Nebraska Water Science Center (NEWSC) from 2004 until his retirement in 2017. The NEWSC has 40 dedicated water science professionals, support personnel, and students and offices in Lincoln and North Platte, Nebraska. He oversaw a science program that is managed through two sections, Hydrologic Surveillance and Hydrologic investigations. The USGS operates over 130 streamgaging stations, about 70 continuous groundwater recorders, and compiles ground-water levels for over 5,000 wells in Nebraska.  

Prior to 2004, he gained a wide range of experience in the Hydrologic Surveillance (Data) Section as a hydrologic technician and hydrologist in the Lincoln, Cambridge, Ord, and North Platte Field Offices. He served as field hydrologist for the National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program's Central Nebraska River (CNBR) Basins Study Unit research team and later as CNBR Study Unit Chief.  From 1999 to 2004, Bob was assigned to the USGS Wyoming Water Science Center as the Chief of Hydrologic Surveillance. He has also been Acting Director for both the Iowa and Missouri Water Science Centers. He has served on numerous committees for the advancement of science and technology in the USGS, as well as business practice committees.

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