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Half-century legacy exemplifies the Wisconsin Idea

July 14, 2015

It was no ordinary lunch, considering where the conversation would lead. The year was 1956, and Henry Hart had invited Arno Lenz to meet at Memorial Union. Thus began a partnership that would ultimately produce the Water Resources Management (WRM) graduate program, still considered one of the best in the world in its 50th year.

Hart, a professor of political science, had learned that he shared a background with Lenz, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. They both worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) before joining the UW-Madison faculty. Hart, who died last November, had an idea.

“I asked him whether he would co-teach a course in river basin planning,” Hart recalled in a 1982 interview. “That was a subject I was interested in from my work with the TVA. And I felt that I could bring an administrative and political point of view if we could relate it to his knowledge of hydrology and engineering for developing water resources in river basins.”

Lenz immediately agreed, sharing Hart’s view that water resource decisions were too often based on geographic or political boundaries without regard to the physical environment. The river basin planning seminar launched in 1958, cross-listed between their departments.
They were soon joined by economics professor Martin Glaeser, another veteran of the TVA.

“The TVA was innovative and truly interdisciplinary, and the fact that we had all worked there was a reason we found it possible to pool our efforts,” Hart explained.

Those efforts launched a course that was groundbreaking in its interdisciplinary approach, though it followed a standard seminar model.

WRM alumni from across the
country and the world will gather
September 17-19 in Madison for
WRM@50: Celebrating a Model
of the Wisconsin Idea

WRM alumni are encouraged to
join us to reconnect and network,
celebrate the program’s 50th
anniversary, and learn about the
latest developments in water
resources management. View
progam details and register
the September 1 deadline.

“Students each wrote individual papers,” says Erhard Joeres, an emeritus professor of civil and environmental engineering who joined the WRM faculty in 1970 and chaired the program through most of the 1980s. “There was an overriding theme of water resources management. You picked out a piece and you wrote yours. The seminar product was a report made up of these individually authored contributions.”

Soon, faculty from law, urban and regional planning and other departments joined the seminar committee. Hart went to India to pursue his research and political science professor Fred Clarenbach took his place. Clarenbach was consulting on a river project in the Arkansas Valley, and he brought that experience into the seminar. That focus on studying a real-world topic would later become a unique and defining feature of WRM.

But first, the graduate program had to be established, and the wheels began to turn in 1962. Lenz had gone to a national university water conference and heard a lot of talk about the creation of interdisciplinary water programs.

“Lenz told me that the term ‘interdisciplinary’ was thrown around but was pretty limited, meaning the hydrologists on the second floor talked to the hydrogeologists on the fourth floor,” says Joeres. “He felt that we were so far ahead, already including political science, organizational structure and economics.”

The need for a UW-Madison degree program was instantly clear to the seminar committee. According to Joeres, the group was “jarred into action” by the news that other universities were developing programs. The committee submitted a proposal to create the Water Resources Management master’s degree program. It was approved and started in 1965, reporting directly to the Graduate School.



Financial support was a key to WRM’s successful launch. Clarenbach and law professor Jake Beuscher, working with engineering professor Gerard Rohlich and Lenz, had developed a successful Water Resources Management Training Grant proposal through a new program under the U.S. Public Health Service. The first grant funded 12 two-year traineeships, providing financial support for the first WRM students.

Clarenbach chaired WRM for its first two years and continued to coordinate the river basin planning seminar. Federal funding flowed in, supporting students, supplies and administration.

“Everybody was on some kind of support,” says Steve Born, now an emeritus professor of urban and regional planning (URPL) who was one of the first WRM graduates. “The funding was substantial, and I received a fellowship to help cover a year of graduate school.”

WRM investigation of Chippewa Flowage
The Chippewa Flowage workshop
established a model that has been
integral to WRM ever since: students
engaging with real-world projects
and diverse stakeholders.

Enrollments climbed as funding was secured for as many as 18 students per year. Geology professor David Stephenson took over as chair in 1967 as more faculty members joined, representing fields such as agricultural economics, botany, journalism, limnology and soils. Born, who had gone on to earn a Ph.D. in geology and had joined the URPL faculty, was among them, and he credits Stephenson with skillfully balancing the diverse interests of faculty and students through this formative period.

“Many of the faculty modified courses to adapt to WRM student needs,” says Born. “Gerald Gerloff in botany, Rohlich in his water pollution control class, Stephenson in hydrogeology, Gerhard Lee and Fred Madison’s soils class, Jim McDonald’s water law, and my water policy and institutions. These were mainstays of the program.”

The creation of the Institute for Environmental Studies (IES) in 1970 (later renamed in honor of the late U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson) provided an opportunity for WRM to affiliate with a campus-wide interdisciplinary program. After lengthy debate about the pros and cons, it joined the institute in 1972.

“(The Nelson Institute) furnished the interdisciplinary umbrella and was able to provide WRM with an administrative home,” Joeres has written. “The program became the cornerstone and model program for subsequent degree programs in the institute.”

But a funding challenge lay just ahead. The Nixon administration, faced with an economic downturn and mounting federal deficits, phased out the program that supported the students. The money would dry up by 1975.

"We were scared that WRM would fold,” Joeres recalls. “We thought if we can’t support the students, they won’t come anymore. But we didn’t get fewer applicants; we got more and more, even though we had nomoney.”

With student numbers topping 40, 50, even 90, the faculty had to impose enrollment limits to preserve the unique qualities of the annual workshop, which had evolved from the river basin planning seminar.



The seminar had served as an essential element of WRM for the first six years. But an opportunity arose in 1971 that would radically change the seminar model and alter the very nature of WRM.

The Chippewa Flowage, a dam built in 1924 in northwestern Wisconsin for flood control and hydroelectric power, was coming up on its 50-year federal licensing review. The relicensing was controversial, with a broad array of involved interests – ideal for an interdisciplinary seminar topic. Born, who had taken a leave to direct a state water program, helped Joeres bring WRM into the review process.

“Unlike the broad topics chosen for earlier seminars, here was an issue of immediate and vital concern to the community, one where the student workshop, speaking as an unbiased, diverse and well-trained group of professionals, could make a contribution to policy,” Joeres explains. “This was anything but the textbook environment the students had been used to.”

“I think [WRM] is unique in
the United States. You have
the interdisciplinarity and you
have the workshop, which gives
students access to a real problem
with stakeholders and questions.”

The project went on for two years. Students worked with state agency staff and a wide set of interests, including state and federal staff, an electric utility, Native American tribes and local communities. The workshop team produced a set of technical documents and testified before the Federal Power Commission in Washington, D.C.

“It was a big jump up in terms of complexity, scale of operation, and interfacing of university and agency personnel,” says Born, who served two terms as WRM chair.

The Chippewa Flowage workshop established a model that has been integral to WRM ever since, with students engaging – as a team – with real-world projects and diverse stakeholders. And that, more than any other factor, sets it apart from water resources programs at other universities, according to Ken Potter, who is stepping down this summer after chairing WRM for the past eight years.

“I think it’s unique in the United States,” says Potter, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “You have the interdisciplinarity and you have the workshop, which gives students access to a real problem with stakeholders and questions.”

The program also connects to a large, diverse university with low walls between disciplines, and to an array of Madison-based state agencies.

“All these groups just open their doors,” says Potter. “And the program has gained a good reputation, so communities that want projects done come to us.”

The result has been an abundance of workshop options. The program chair, with input from students and faculty, looks for projects that represent a current issue, where the workshop can make a contribution to a community, where an interested group or agency is willing to provide funding for supplies, sampling, surveys, printing and other costs, and where the agency or group will strive to implement the results.

“I consider a good project one where there is a good chance of it being implemented, where there’s a creative element to it that makes it fun, where you can come up with something interesting that nobody had thought of,” says Potter.

More than 40 communities across Wisconsin have benefitted from WRM workshops, with projects covering almost every kind of local water resource problem.

“Community after community gets $100,000 worth of free consulting that enables them to do a multimillion-dollar project. The students learn and the engagement is just tremendous. It’s the exemplar of the Wisconsin Idea,” says Born.


The summer workshops have been an enriching part of the WRM student experience. But a period of uncertainty seems woven into the first phase of each workshop project, which includes two semesters studying the problem and planning an approach prior to the on-the-ground summer project. Joeres says that pattern began with the Chippewa Flowage project.

“We had these meetings, and the students were really frustrated because they were used to being told what to do,” he recalls. “We heard a lot of criticism from students: The project wasn’t defined, it was fuzzy, and we spend a whole lot of time each week regrouping from where we were a week ago.”

Nearly a half-century later, Potter says the students go through the same process in virtually every workshop, a normal and necessary part of learning to manage a big, real-world project.

WRM Delavan Lake report
More than 40 communities across
Wisconsin have benefitted from
WRM workshops, with projects
covering almost every kind of local
water resource problem. View a map.

“In every one of them, after the first semester in the fall, people are scratching their heads, saying ‘what are we doing, we’re disorganized, we don’t have a plan.’ And by the next semester, it starts to click.” 

It also takes time for students to figure out their roles in the workshop. Like the faculty, they come from a variety of disciplines, and most have worked prior to returning to graduate school. Potter says the students bring a lot of expertise into the program that determines how they approach a project.

“It’s like putting together a sports team; until you bring everyone together you’re not sure what kind of offense you’re going to run,” he says. “So you have to see what kinds of passions and talents are there.”

If there’s a consensus opinion among WRM faculty, it’s that the program attracts exceptional students. That’s an attractive feature for the faculty who voluntarily participate.

Jean Bahr, a professor of geosciences, was recruited by Joeres to serve on the WRM committee soon after she arrived at UW-Madison in 1987. She had begun to learn about WRM from students taking her classes or pursuing a double degree with geology.

“That gave me early exposure to the students in the program and its interdisciplinary strengths,” Bahr says. “There are opportunities to interact with talented students from a variety of backgrounds and to work with a variety of stakeholders to promote management and protection of water resources. Those are the greatest rewards for participation.”

Like other WRM faculty, she doesn’t look for program applicants who are on a fevered mission to save the Earth. Rather, the best candidates for admission tend to have a realistic view of environmental challenges and want to do their part to help.

Such was the case with Mary Ellen Vollbrecht, who earned her master’s degree in 1981. Vollbrecht is the groundwater section chief with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“I was interested in several scientific fields but most of all hoped to be able to help solve environmental problems,” she says. “WRM teaches how to use diverse data, how to help people understand data and how to develop management systems, and the workshop gives you a chance to try what you’ve learned in the real world.”

Vollbrecht says her participation in the 1981 Koshkonong Creek workshop, which developed a watershed management plan in eastern Dane County, has helped her throughout her career.

“I’ve used two lessons from the workshop over and over,” she says. “The simple existence of data doesn’t lead to workable decisions; people need a chance to ask their own questions,develop relationships and understand options. And I learned that a big part of making progress is getting started.”

For alumna Rebecca Wodder, WRM provided the tools to build a career in both the nonprofit sector and government. Wodder worked as an aide to Gaylord Nelson, led the national advocacy group American Rivers for 16 years, and capped her career as a senior advisor to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on river and water issues.

She credits Steve Born and the late Bud Jordahl as her most influential professors.

“Steve and Bud were not only great teachers, but they also were involved in both state and federal government and had a lot of great relationships within those sectors,” she says. “WRM was important at the beginning of my career and all the way through.”

Wodder says the kind of training offered by WRM is more critical than ever.

“Every day we see more and more evidence of the importance of fresh water and the looming threats to fresh water,” she says. “It’s our most important resource, it’s a limited resource, and we can’t live without it. So to have people trained and capable in that field is critical.”

Henry Hart: A Remembrance

By Barbara Borns

Editor’s note: Henry Hart was an innovative presence at UW-Madison from his hiring onto the political science faculty in 1948 until his retirement in 1982. Hart, who passed away last November, was a true interdisciplinarian, working between departments and programs to help create new areas of research and education in political science, South Asian studies and environmental studies. Barbara Borns worked with him when she joined the Nelson Institute staff in 1980 as the graduate student advisor, a position she held until her retirement in 2003.

Henry Hart
Henry Hart, 1916-2014

Henry Hart was an influential leader in the Nelson Institute in the early 1980s and a powerful advocate for interdisciplinary studies, which inspired his early role in starting the Water Resources Management program. Having worked at the Tennessee Valley Authority, he understood the need for an interdisciplinary approach to solving watershed problems. But in addition to being a strong academic and integrative thinker, Henry was also an interesting person. Living in India during his early life gave him different perspectives on our American lifestyle and politics.

When I began work in the Nelson Institute (then known as IES) in 1980, Henry was the chair of academic programs. He invited me to the first faculty meeting shortly after I began.It was all pretty new to me at the time, and I didn’t know quite what to expect. But imagine my surprise when Henry called me at home that night to apologize for failing to introduce me at the meeting. Shortly after that, he invited me to take our bag lunches to Muir Woods,which until that day I didn’t even know existed. He told me about John Muir and his association with UW-Madison, an important historical legacy.

Henry chaired the institute’s academic programs for several years. He happily attended the celebration when the undergraduate major in environmental studies was finally approved in 2011, even though he had to bring his oxygen tank along with him. He was well into his 90s and his mind was sharp as a tack, recalling people and events I had forgotten.

I also recall his amazing woodworking skills, a hobby he pursued with great relish that resulted in many lovely pieces, one of which I still treasure in my home. He and his wifeVirginia were active members of the Madison community, contributing their time and talents to environmental and social causes.