Ken Bradbury on why we can’t take groundwater for granted

Feb 8, 2023 | Drinking Water, Groundwater

Kenneth R. Bradbury is an Emeritus Professor (Retired) and former Director and State Geologist at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey in the UW-Madison Division of Extension. He is a hydrogeologist who has over 40 years of experience working on groundwater issues in Wisconsin.

The value of Ken’s leadership in understanding Wisconsin’s groundwater – which is the source of drinking water for around two-thirds of people living in Wisconsin – is hard to calculate. We spoke with Ken to learn how groundwater science has changed over the years, how its been used to help communities facing water pollution problems, and what he sees are the most important challenges to our waters’ future.

Ken relaxes with the dogAre you enjoying retirement?

Yes. I retired in July and since then I’ve enjoyed spending more time at home. I take our dog for long, daily walks. I’m also doing a lot of overdue maintenance and repairs to our home. I’ve done quite a bit of canoeing, almost every day in the summer when the weather was nice. I also do a lot of biking and hopefully this winter more cross country skiing. 

I have been staying professionally active, giving talks, reviewing research papers, serving on committees (like River Alliance’s Wisconsin Water Agenda basin team). I still get emails from people with questions about a rock they found or about Wisconsin geology. 

What do you think was your most significant accomplishment in your career?

When I was finishing my PhD at the University of Wisconsin in 1982, I was fortunate enough to get a job as a research hydrogeologist at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey. The Survey gave me a lot of freedom to design my own projects looking at Wisconsin’s groundwater. My research interests were in investigations of groundwater flow in fractured rocks, specifically the fractured dolomite in Door County, as well as how groundwater flowed from the land into Green Bay and Lake Michigan. This work led to research in other bedrock aquifers across the state, including fractured clays near Ashland and Superior. Over my 40-year career, I have had the opportunity to work in just about every part of Wisconsin and getting to know the state has been very rewarding.

Another highlight was working with Professor Mary Anderson, both during and after my PhD work at UW-Madison. Mary was a leading innovator in groundwater modeling. She may have been teaching one of the only college courses in groundwater modeling in the United States at the time and literally wrote the first useful book on modeling. Groundwater modeling in the 80s was an esoteric and cutting-edge part of the science. It was viewed with skepticism at the time, but I received a fundamental training in that discipline. I and my colleagues brought that training to the Survey at the beginning of my career and I’ve seen it change and mature. Now modeling is an essential part of any routine groundwater study. 

Another high point was becoming the State Geologist and Director of the Survey. It was quite an honor to follow in the footsteps of people like Increase Lapham, T.C. Chamberlain, E.A. Birge and other eminent Wisconsin geologists, though of course I could never put myself in their category. Being a part of that line of leaders is pretty cool. The Survey has a talented and energetic staff, and it was wonderful to lead them and to work with them in my retirement. 

Ken with a friend at the Appalachian Trail terminusWhat changes to Wisconsin’s water management, data collection, and information dissemination have you observed over your career that have been good or bad for water protection.

I see that it has mostly improved. Of course, the biggest change has been in sharing digital data. The internet revolutionized water resources management. There are literally hundreds of thousands of water well reports in our state. When I started, they were all on paper, at the Survey, in manilla folders in filing cabinets. There was public access to that information, but you had to find a well, dig through the files, and look through many, many pieces of paper. Maybe xerox it and mail it if you wanted to share it. But now it’s all been digitized. Even old ones have been scanned. Now it’s a database shared among DATCP, DNR, students, and researchers. It can help us understand the state’s subsurface geology better, and help people communicate. Property owners, regulatory agencies, industry groups can all have the same information. 

There’s also the strength of the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council. That was something that was formed near the beginning of my career and which I’ve participated in. The Council is a unique institution, a real “Wisconsin” thing. All state agencies are represented on the council and they work in cooperation together for the good of the groundwater and of people. It doesn’t have regulatory power, which may be why it works so well. Decisions aren’t high-stakes, but it’s where people from DNR can talk to DATCP, the Survey, DOT, and the University who can all communicate about shared groundwater issues. There may not be anything else quite like it in the nation. It avoids turf battles, increases efficiency, helps the research community, and oversees a joint solicitation program where most groundwater science is funded for applied research on problems. That is really needed in Wisconsin and has been a wonderful resource for groundwater research.

A negative change I see is that groundwater has gotten more politicized in recent years. There are controversies happening between industry, environmental groups, the DNR, and the public that aren’t necessarily healthy. Groundwater is a shared resource, yet there are continuing arguments over groundwater quantity and quality that often ignore the best science. An example is last year’s opposition to groundwater standards for PFAS. The standards, developed with much scientific input, just make sense. But industry interests opposed them. During my career I’ve seen similar arguments about agrichemicals such as aldicarb and atrazine. These weren’t supposed to enter groundwater, yet they did. Use restrictions were feared to damage the agriculture industry, yet by working together we found ways to solve these problems and get these substances out of the water. Agriculture survived. We should learn from this. Wisconsin should strive to return to being the leader we once were in environmental management. 

Ken Bradbury Operating Downhole Geophysical Logger, Door CountyShare an example of a community that had success in using science-driven data to protect their water. 

The first example that comes to mind is the Little Plover River. There was a dispute over the river that ran too low or had gone dry. George Kraft, to his credit, really helped raise the consciousness there. People wanted to know why it went dry. Was it climate change? Over-pumping groundwater? Something else? 

The DNR commissioned the Survey and USGS to develop a groundwater model of the Little Plover situation. There was a lot of skepticism about this, and we had contentious meetings with the potato and vegetable growers, farmers, and others who said the study was a waste of time. But on the other hand, it brought people together to talk about water. We developed a successful model that showed the decline in flow was correlated with high-capacity well pumping at certain distances from the river. When we presented the results in Stevens Point, it was a packed audience of several hundred people. You could feel the tension in the air, there was so much interest. I’m not sure everyone liked what they heard, but most people accepted it as good science with a lot of peer review. Since then it’s been a good outcome. The model is still being used in the restoration work to this day. 

The other example is the work we’ve recently completed with the Southwest Wisconsin Geology and Groundwater study on groundwater quality in Grant, Iowa, and Lafayette Counties. I was part of a research team that collected over 800 samples from private water wells in the three-county area and found a large percentage of wells didn’t meet water quality standards for nitrate or bacteria. That happened around the time Tony Evers was elected Governor. When the results were published in the newspapers, that got a lot of attention. It helped inspire Evers to declare the Year of Clean Drinking Water and the Legislature to put together the Speaker’s Water Quality Task Force. It got people around the state talking about groundwater quality. It was a step forward that we did the study, released the results, were transparent about resources, and raised consciousness. It got communities interested. There was, and still is, disagreement about pollution sources and solutions, but it raised the local understanding of groundwater vulnerability and inspired some legislation. 

Ken collects water samples from the Mink River estuary in Door CountyKnowing what you know, what do you predict will be the top concerns for Wisconsin’s water in the next 30 years and what do you think can be done to prevent problems.

Nutrients, especially nitrate, will continue to be a difficult problem in our agricultural regions. We simply can’t meet groundwater standards and continue to grow corn and other crops at the yield rates we’re doing now. That doesn’t mean we can’t grow corn. But our current best management efforts are incremental changes that just nibble around the edges of the problems. People aren’t facing the problem. We cannot meet nitrate standards and maintain current crop yields. So we need to decide what’s more important: water quality or agricultural production.

I think there will be continued concern with trace contaminants in groundwater. When I was in graduate school there was very little knowledge or understanding of organic contaminants in groundwater. Contaminant hydrogeology was a relatively new branch of science. During my career we’ve seen the Love Canal and leaking landfills, and discovered dense nonaqueous phase liquids in groundwater. As the lab techniques got better, we could detect things at lower levels. Then government took action to solve the problem. Now the contaminants of the day are PFAS and PFOS. As we go on we will detect more things in the future as monitoring and analytical techniques continue to improve. Hopefully manufacturers will get smarter before releasing chemicals into the environment and consider the environmental fate of the products they create. 

Of course climate change is happening and this is putting greater stresses on water resources. Climate change has implications for water quantity, quality, and water infrastructure. Dealing with the more extreme events like floods and droughts that will likely occur will be a continuing challenge.

Are you optimistic for Wisconsin’s water future? Why or why not? 

I’m an optimist! Wisconsin’s water resources are a true treasure. I believe more and more people are coming to realize that we can’t take our groundwater for granted. Because of the wide use of groundwater for public and private water supply in the state, Wisconsin’s people are more attuned to our water resources. They understand that most water resource management is a local concern and that what happens in the landscape near their home can impact their water.

We also continue to have a great cadre of scientists and regulators in Wisconsin working on these problems. It’s a treasure to have the University. It has a wonderful group of scientists – many I know personally – who are at the top of their field working on these problems. DNR and DATCP have very able regulators working on these problems. There is a lot of power there. And we have environmental groups like River Alliance. Wisconsin has a lot of horsepower for positive change. 

Ken In BWCA 2022Where do you like to paddle (or what is your favorite way to enjoy Wisconsin’s waters) and why?

Well, my wife may say I have too many canoes. We live equidistant from the Sugar River, Badfish Creek and the Lower Yahara River and I paddle there often. Looking north, I really like the Flambeau River. I try to get to the Boundary Waters once a year.




– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director


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