Wendy Graham grew up on the small coral island of Nassau, Bahamas, with little access to fresh water. The use of city water was restricted to eight hours a day, and the well water at her house was brackish.
“We organized our washing and bathing activities around when water was available,” Graham said. “I always knew that water was a finite resource.”
Graham left Nassau for Gainesville in 1977 to attend the University of Florida just after the U.S.’s first major federal law governing water pollution, the Clean Water Act, was signed, and the same year the devastating toxic waste disaster in New York’s Love Canal consumed the media.
“It was also the time when Florida’s water management districts were formed; it was a pivotal point for environmental science and engineering,” said Graham, now the director of the UF Water Institute and the Carl S. Swisher Eminent Scholar Chair in Water Resources.
With water pollution issues such as industrial waste and sewage treatment being largely addressed in the U.S. in the ’80s, the focus has shifted to ensuring a sustainable, high-quality water supply under a changing climate. As population grows, land-use changes, temperature and precipitation patterns change, and sea levels rise, Florida’s water becomes prone to depletion and contamination. Graham’s research helps ensure Floridians have access to clean water while maintaining a healthy ecosystem and a healthy economy.
Graham works with interdisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers to conduct field studies and use computer modeling to create “what-if” scenarios. The models help her predict the consequences of the growth and changes and discover solutions.
After more than 30 years of watching our water supply and environment change, Graham’s fascination and focus on the future endures.
“There are always new questions,” she said. “The work will never be finished, but we steadily make progress.”
When the UF Water Institute was established in 2006, Wendy Graham was hired as the founding director and Carl S. Swisher Eminent Scholar Chair in Water Resources, supported by the Carl S. Swisher Foundation endowment. The late tobacco industrialist, Carl Swisher, created the endowment to help advance research in the availability and allocation of water resources in Florida. A Swisher Foundation representative, Kenneth Anderson, commissioned this painting, “Water Carriers’ Path,” for Graham. He hand-delivered it to her in 2008 after the first UF Water Institute Symposium.