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Half-century legacy exemplifies the Wisconsin Idea

Spring/Summer 2015 | By Steve Pomplun

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.”


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