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OSU’s Kevin Wagner new director of Oklahoma Water Resources Center

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Oklahoma State University alumnus Kevin Wagner has found you can go home again, and play a pivotal role in helping to solve critical concerns and issues for the entire state when doing so.

This summer Wagner assumed the role of director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Center, the hub of water-related research and Cooperative Extension activities in Oklahoma. A part of the OSU Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, the center focuses on efforts to manage and sustain water quality and quantity, especially in regards to the state’s agriculture water supply.

“It is a rare opportunity to lead a water center given there are only 54 such centers in the United States,” Wagner said. “Leading DASNR’s elite center allows me to do what I enjoy: helping people, organizations and communities address water issues while helping to train and mentor students, who are our future leaders and problem-solvers.”

The assignment encompasses challenges ranging from “incredibly complex to the most basic.” Wagner said there is a general lack of understanding about the water supply system. Surveys across the United States have found most people do not know the source of their water.

“Research has shown a strong correlation between awareness of water sources and the level of conservation,” he said. “This really demonstrates the importance of education and outreach programs. Unfortunately, all too often it takes an extreme event such as a drought, flood or infrastructure failure to make people aware of water resources, our dependency on them and the effects human actions have on them.”

The shock and awe associated with a disaster often leads to the misperception – perhaps rooted in a vain hope – that there is a “silver bullet” capable of fixing water resource issues.

“My experience has shown time and again that water issues are so complex it usually takes all the tools in the toolbox to address them,” Wagner said.

Building the water resources toolbox

Wagner believes timely, relevant research is absolutely critical to water management. According to the 1964 Water Resources Research Act, DASNR’s Oklahoma Water Resources Center has the following mandate:
● To plan, facilitate & conduct research to help resolve state and regional water problems; and
● To promote technology transfer and application of research results.

“Whether it’s the development of next generation technology to treat water or better evaluate aquifer systems and water availability, decision-makers and citizens need ongoing, current research to support economic and environmental security,” Wagner said.

Wagner believes water is personally and professionally an intimate issue, even though people often take it for granted. The fact that nearly 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water should mean water should never be limiting, but most of the water – about 97 percent – is salt water that cannot be used by most terrestrial plants and animals. And of the small portion of the earth’s water that is fresh, less than 0.3 percent is usable from surface waters such as lakes and streams or from groundwater.

“Dr. Wagner knows Oklahoma water issues well from experience he gained earlier in his career with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and as a graduate student at OSU,” said Tom Coon, DASNR dean and director and OSU vice president of agricultural programs. “He has been successful at fostering a collaborative approach to water research in his role as assistant director of the Texas Water Research Center and he brings that proven experience to OSU as our new water center director.”

Coon said he has been impressed with how quickly Wagner has built a network of potential collaborators among OSU faculty and with other universities, agencies and organizations, citing the importance of fostering “strong and successful collaborative teams to help address current and future water challenges.”

As has often been proven, water quality can rapidly become a hot button issue when it requires changing a behavior or monetary investment.

“Fortunately, when we demonstrate that the benefits exceed costs, most people readily work to address water quality issues, as this is obviously important to the health and quality of life for us all,” Wagner said. “Awareness of not only the water issues but possible solutions and benefits are critical to their ultimate resolution.”

Take water-related infrastructure, for example. America’s water infrastructure has earned a grade of “D” from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“Water infrastructure is aging and it’s beginning to show,” Wagner said. “For instance, an Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality survey of 40 water systems across our state found that systems lose nearly a quarter of their water due to water main leaks, overflows at storage facilities and leaks on customer service taps.”

Continued investment in infrastructure is obviously needed to maintain service. Doing so in an era of severe budget constraints is the challenge – at the local, county and state levels. “People need relevant research-based information in order to make the most efficient and cost-effective decisions,” Wagner said.

The land-grant mission made real

In addition to planning, facilitating and conducting research to help resolve state and regional water problems and promoting technology transfer and application of research results, DASNR’s Oklahoma Water Resources Center also has a state and federal mandate to provide for the training of scientists and engineers, as well competitive grants awarded under the Water Resources Research Act.

“DASNR’s Oklahoma Water Resources Center is particularly well positioned to fill its mission through its association with the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, other colleges at OSU, the statewide Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system, the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and DASNR’s many public and private cooperating partners,” Wagner said.

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “Water conservation starts where the first rain drop falls.” Wagner wholeheartedly agrees.

“The cheapest water is the water you already have, so conserve it,” he said. “We can do it. Look at Oklahoma: We have more manmade lakes than any state in America. Historically, we have always been a people to roll up our sleeves and improve the quality of life for ourselves, our families and our communities.”

Wagner invites anyone interested in learning more about water quality issues, DASNR’s Oklahoma Water Resources Center and ongoing research and Extension efforts related to water quality and quantity to visit online. “We’re just a click away, literally.”

As DASNR Oklahoma Water Resources Center director, Wagner also assumed the position of OSU’s Thomas E. Berry Professorship in Integrated Water Research and Management. The endowed professorship focuses on sustaining Oklahoma’s water supply by helping agricultural producers, landowners and the public make informed and beneficial decisions about water use and management.

Prior to joining the OSU faculty, Wagner served in leadership positions at the Texas Water Research Institute from 2005 to 2017 and the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board from 1999 to 2005. He worked as a water quality analyst for the Oklahoma Conservation Commission from 1994 to 1997.

A Cowboy alumnus, Wagner earned his Master of Science degree in environmental science at OSU in 1995. He earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and his doctoral degree in agronomy from Howard Payne University and Texas A&M University, respectively.

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