From the President department heading
Illustration of John C. Bravman, President
Illustration: Joel Kimmel

Rivers Enrich Our Past, Present and Future

It’s been nearly a year since we marked Bucknell’s 175th anniversary on Feb. 5. Certainly 2021 was one of our University’s most challenging years, as we dealt with the global pandemic’s impact on our operations, managing to offer in-person, on-campus education despite myriad financial and logistical challenges. As I write this in fall 2021, we can only hope that our 176th year will begin on a more even keel.
Inspired by this landmark year, I’ve also been delving into some personal history and came across a photo taken 20 years ago of me standing by Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. The white mineral deposits — or bathtub ring — on the shoreline behind me indicate that the water level was then much higher than it is today, a decline driven by a 20-year drought, human activity and climate change.

According to the National Park Service, Lake Mead’s water level has dropped about 140 feet since I visited. It’s now at 38% of its total storage capacity. Implications are troubling for the declining Colorado River, which feeds the lake reservoir as well as the 40 million people who draw water and electricity from the Colorado River Basin.

One Bucknellian has long been sounding the alarm regarding environmental threats to the Colorado, nicknamed the Nile of America. Jack Schmidt ’72, featured on Page 28, was a political science major who found mentors in our geology and geography faculty. They encouraged him to pursue a career that has led to his standing as a leading authority on fluvial geomorphology, or the study of rivers. His political science classes have also served him well as he navigates the policy dimensions of a drought-afflicted river that serves seven states.

While the plight of the Colorado River makes national headlines, the Susquehanna River’s vitality is also threatened by climate change. The largest commercially non-navigable river in North America is inextricably linked to Bucknell’s past, present and future.

From its start near Cooperstown, N.Y., to its end point in the Chesapeake Bay, an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean, the 444-mile river supplies water to 6 million people.

Bucknell faculty have long relied upon it as a living laboratory for students. For at least the last 20 years, our faculty, staff and students have fostered ties through grants with state and federal agencies on projects related to stream restoration, water- quality improvement, and the overall health and resiliency of the Susquehanna.

As just one example, professors and students representing an array of disciplines are creating a long-term record of temperature readings to measure the impact of climate change on the Susquehanna. They’re interested in floods, droughts and temperature changes on the river.

Biology’s Matthew McTammany ’95 uses field-station data to create mathematical models to assess the ability of the river to produce oxygen and respire. Civil & environmental engineering’s Jessica Thomas Newlin ’98 is developing hydraulic and temperature models of the Susquehanna and other large rivers. Her department colleagues, Richard Crago and Matthew Higgins, are devising numerical models of sediment erosion and pollution pathways to inform stream and river restoration projects. In the future, they hope to have some definitive answers about the health of the river and climate change’s impact upon it.

As Jack Schmidt learned in his student days, at Bucknell we know that complex problems are best solved through collaborations among bright minds from a variety of disciplines. It is one of the many reasons Bucknell is still going strong 176 years on.

Copy of John C. Bravman signature

John C. Bravman