How Science has Changed at the Robert S. Kerr Environmental Research Center over the Last Fifty Years

By Jane Ice

This week the Robert S. Kerr Environmental Research Center in Ada, Oklahoma is celebrating its 50th anniversary. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a few researchers at the Center—Jack Keeley, Joe Williams, and Dave Jewett—to discuss how science has changed here over the last 50 years . Afterward I was in awe, and felt as if I’d just interviewed The Beatles. Keeley, Williams, Jewett, and others stationed at the Center over the last five decades are truly the rock stars of groundwater science.

three pictures of scientists over different years

Scientists at the Robert S. Kerr Environmental Research Center over the last 50 years

Keeley began his environmental career in 1965 at the Kerr Center and worked at EPA from its inception in 1970. His work led to the creation of EPA’s first groundwater program in 1979, a time when nobody understood much about groundwater or groundwater research. Keeley remembers, “It was considered mysterious and cult-like.”

The 70s and 80s brought positive changes and opportunities for the Center. More efficient methods made scientific results easier to obtain and more accurate. Keeley and staff worked for years with local and regional colleges and universities to help build their curricula. “We created a new profession of scientists equipped to deal with all phases of groundwater research,” said Keeley. “We literally had people from all over the world come to this laboratory just to work with our scientists – Sweden, Germany, France, and other countries. We were that famous at one time.”

Williams joined EPA in 1987, when information technology was becoming more common in the workplace. Among his many contributions was his leading role in creating EPA’s first public wiki internet site: EPA Watershed Central Wiki. “This site helps managers discover the correct tools to use in developing a watershed management plan; and creates an environment to foster the exchange of lessons learned and best watershed management practices across the nation,” said Williams.

Jewett joined EPA in 1997, when much of the research focused on contaminated site characterization and groundwater remediation. Ecosystem restoration was also part of the Center’s mission at that time.

When discussing future directions Jewett said, “Research will always be necessary to improve efficacy and cost effectiveness of various technologies and strategies to characterize and remediate contaminated groundwater.” Williams commented, “I definitely see a relevance and need of aquifer storage and recovery for water reuse where that might apply to drinking water supplies or support for watershed scale ecosystems. The need for subsurface remediation research for in situ remediation at contaminated sites remains a high priority for the nation.”

scientists work at their stations in different yearsAs world leaders of unprecedented, successful, sustainable ground water science, Keeley, Williams, and Jewett shared their passion and appreciation for the ability to share information with other science organizations “We are experts in understanding subsurface groundwater flow and transport of naturally occurring and human-generated contaminant mass,” said Jewett. “We have transitioned from contaminated sites research to national and global studies regarding water resources. We study how water impacts ecosystem goods and services, how we value those water resources, and determine what we can do to improve those resources for future use.”

With the help of these scientists and everyone at the Center, groundwater research has become an integral part of human health and environmental protection today. As we look back on all that has been accomplished here over the last 50 years, one thing is clear—all you need is science!

Note: Jack Keeley, Director of Research, retired in 1988. Joe Williams is Deputy National Program Director for Office of Research and Development’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research program, Dave Jewett is the Chief of the Subsurface Remediation Branch and Co-Chair for EPA’s Tribal Science council.

About the Author: Jane Ice is a Public Affairs Specialist with the National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio. She joined EPA in 1990.

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