Water warrior

Published: June 24th, 2008

Category: Spotlights

Wendy Graham

Wendy Graham

Carl S. Swisher Chair in Water Resources
Director, UF Water Institute

She grew up surrounded by water, but where there wasn’t always enough of it to quench a thirst.

Little wonder, then, that Wendy Graham made water her life’s study.

A groundwater hydrologist, Graham became the inaugural director of UF’s Water Institute in 2006.

The Water Institute is a campuswide interdisciplinary effort with more than 180 affiliated faculty members. The idea is that the institute will address Florida’s water issues, while also helping provide solutions, science and education for national and global water resource problems.

Its first major symposium, which was held in late February, drew some 450 participants-far more than expected.

Graham grew up in the Bahamas. Recreation was tied to water: sailing, scuba diving, swimming. But the municipal water at her family’s home worked only from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. After that, the family used well water, which Graham describes as “a little brackish.”

Still, they felt lucky to have it. Many villages and towns shared a single source of that brackish well water without the benefit of government-supplied water.

That surrounded-by-it-but-can’t-always-drink-it paradox stuck with her. The academically precocious Graham was a University of Florida freshman at age 16. Urged by her family to “be practical” in her studies, she earned an environmental engineering degree.

After dabbling in consulting and finding it not to her calling, she went straight from a bachelor’s degree to pursuing a doctorate in civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Aiming for academia, she took a job as an assistant professor with UF’s Agricultural and Biological Engineering department in 1988. She has been affiliated with it ever since, chairing the department for three years before taking the Water Institute post.

The institute studies water from every conceivable angle, from ecology to how it moves through the landscape, to water law and policy. In 2006-07, Water Institute faculty had $13 million in more than 150 externally funded studies under way, including a study of water resource management in India.

With drought, climate change and intra- and interstate water disputes now news staples, the institute has plenty on its plate to study.

While Graham believes all of those things will continue to be issues, she said she doesn’t think Americans are in danger of running out of drinking water.

“I think we have the capacity to treat water for drinking wherever we need it,” she said. “Now, whether we’ll be watering our lawns with drinking water? Probably not.”

Photo credit: Kristen Bartlett Grace — University Photography

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