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Luna Leopold: A Visionary in Water Resource Management

Today marks Luna Bergere Leopold’s 100th birthday. Although Luna passed away in 2006, his memory and influence have not faded. In fact, his groundbreaking research on water resources is perhaps more relevant now than ever before. Luna is most famous as a pioneer in researching fluvial geomorphology—the study of how rivers are formed and shaped by their surrounding landscape—but he was also a husband, father, devoted teacher, and fierce defender of nature.

Luna Color

The Integration of Disciplines

Luna was born on October 8, 1915. Growing up in Madison with its abundant lakes, going on fishing trips with his father, and spending time at the Shack along the Wisconsin River provided the perfect environment for curiosity to flourish, and surely contributed to Luna’s interest in water. Aside from his fascination with water, Luna also had many hobbies: hiking, playing guitar, landscape painting, and flying airplanes.

But the event that had perhaps the biggest impact on Luna’s interest in hydrology was working in Coon Valley as a teenager on the nation’s first watershed-scale soil and water conservation project. It was along these streambanks that Luna started to piece together the intricacies of water and land: surface water and groundwater are essentially connected; landscapes shape water and water shapes landscapes; humans can have a detrimental effect, but also a restorative impact.

Luna Fish

Luna Leopold on a fishing trip in 1937

Luna’s experience watching different scientific disciplines coming together for positive change in Coon Valley encouraged him to take an interdisciplinary approach to hydrology. He received an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 1936, a master’s degree in physics and meteorology from the University of California-Los Angeles in 1944, and in 1950 earned his Ph.D. in geology from Harvard. Through his training in these seemingly disparate academic disciplines, Luna developed a fresh way of looking at water, and pioneered a new era in hydrology.

A Steward of Water Resources

Luna’s professional career started when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and joined the Army Weather Service. After a short stint with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Pineapple Research Institute in Hawaii, Luna went to work with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in 1949. Luna moved quickly up the ranks, culminating in a leadership position overseeing all USGS water programs in 1957. In 1963, Luna became the first Chief Hydrologist of the USGS, and helped develop degree programs in hydrology at many universities. In 1972, Luna devoted his energy fully to teaching and research at the University of California-Berkeley, where he began to inspire the next generation of hydrologists.

In addition to his work overseeing the publication of A Sand County Almanac after Aldo’s death, Luna published six books and roughly 200 articles of his own. In these articles and books, Luna positioned hydrology as a key science needed to understand the physical mechanisms of our planet, how they affect the biota, and ultimately, how we can find a sustainable existence within these systems. In 1974, Luna published Water—A Primer, a compact book arriving after the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and serving as an essential (and accessible) guide for a generation attempting to navigate the disorienting channels of hard science and government bureaucracy.

Luna Fieldwork 2

Luna especially enjoyed his time doing fieldwork.

 

Luna, however, was not only an influence in academic circles. He also actively fought many on-the-ground battles for the environment, all the while trying to instill his father’s land ethic in those around him. Luna’s scathing environmental impact report was instrumental in forcing the Dade County Port Authority to scrap a proposed 39 square mile airport slated to be located in wetlands just six miles north of Everglades National Park. Luna also prepared an assessment of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, in which he chastised the plan for not taking into consideration basic engineering mechanisms and warned of a costly environmental disaster if the plans were not revised. In the end, the permit was granted under a safer plan. Luna’s use of scientific research to inform environmental and public health actions were the prototypes for the Environmental Impact Statements required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

Luna’s achievements were recognized during his lifetime with many prestigious awards and honors, including the National Medal of Science, the Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America, election to the National Academy of Sciences, and election as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth and Environmental Science, posthumously, in 2006.

Luna UW

Luna sporting his Badger pride. He received an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 1936.

Luna’s Legacy

Like his father, Luna Leopold was ahead of his time on many fronts. But where he was perhaps most visionary was understanding the encompassing significance of water to our society, to our ecosystems, and to all life. Luna saw before many others how water would play a crucial role in the twenty-first century: “Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.”

And we live in a time when this most critical resource has never been more threatened. As the “wicked problems” of climate change, globalization, political and economic upheaval, and resource scarcity have converged so rapidly, we find our civilization on the precarious precipice of unfamiliar territory—one in which we are scrambling with old solutions to new problems.

As a student of history, as well as ecology, I ask myself in this instance: what would Luna Leopold do?

It is clear that Luna would not stand by and do nothing. That was not Luna’s way. Luna fought with facts and logic, but also understood that facts and logic might not always carry the day. It is people who make environmental decisions, and people who must be persuaded to apply facts and logic in the correct way. If we are going to solve the wicked problems that face us, we must do exactly that. Yes, we need hard science, data, facts, models. But I would argue that we also need empathy, caring, and understanding to bridge these seemingly intractable divides.

Water!

It is up to us to ensure everybody has access to clean water. Find out how you can do your part! The EPA has a list of ideas for how to get involved.

On Luna’s 100th birthday, we should certainly look back and marvel at all that Luna accomplished. But we must also remember that Luna was a forward thinker, and to properly honor him, it’s incumbent upon us to look forward as well. Luna was not alone as he steered an innovative new science; many students worked beside him as he pioneered water resource management. We have an opportunity—arguably the most important in history—to be pioneers in our own right, to bring others along, to find new solutions, to be teachers and stewards. Luna certainly seized his moment. The question for us remains: will we?