Alumnae Sisters Work to Preserve Precious Groundwater Resources in Nebraska

Sisters Jane Griffin-Ciotti ’87 and Karen Griffin ’84 are back home in Lincoln, Neb., where they are working in different fields on the same water preservation issues.

When Karen Griffin ’84 and Jane Griffin-Ciotti ’87 left Nebraska for Smith College, they each thought they were departing for good. Today, after decades of education and careers in such far-flung places as Florence, Italy, Santa Barbara, Calif., and Boulder, Co., both have returned home to Lincoln, Neb., where they are working on one of the most important issues of our time: groundwater.

Karen, a geologist, is groundwater technical leader at Olsson Associates, an engineering and consulting firm. Jane is president of the Groundwater Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that educates people and communities about groundwater. In a recent interview, they talked about this precious natural resource, their work and how their Smith education shaped their respective paths.

Groundwater is critically important …

Karen: “In my job, I am constantly looking for water for communities and industries; it gets harder every day. In places like California, western Kansas and Texas, irrigated agriculture depleted the groundwater aquifers too fast; this dramatically affected these regions’ ability to grow food and sustain their own economies. We’re working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen in Nebraska.”

Jane: “Of all the water on earth, only 2 percent is available for human use. Of that 2 percent, nearly all of it—98 percent—is groundwater. Groundwater is what we drink. It grows our food. It fuels our industries, and it refills rivers and streams. That’s what the Groundwater Foundation is working to teach people: that groundwater literally sustains our entire lives.”

… and it’s fragile.

Karen: “Groundwater is a finite resource, just like oil. The things we do as humans can contaminate groundwater or deplete it completely. It takes just one day to pollute groundwater, as we saw recently in Charleston, W.V. [with the Elk River chemical spill]. But it takes years and years, and vast amounts of money, to clean it up.”

Jane: “My organization works with a network of Groundwater Guardian teams, community representatives who educate the public about local groundwater issues. Some teams are working on pharmaceutical takeback programs. Others are working on salting roads or conservation. Others are working on effective use of groundwater in agriculture, while still others are working on urban sprawl. While the issues vary by location, they share one thing in common: All groundwater is vulnerable to human actions.”

Both natural phenomena and human activity pose risks …

Karen: “In 2012, we faced a terrible drought in Nebraska. The mayor put signs all over the city telling citizens how much water we used each day; seeing how much we use, during a time when the wells weren’t being replenished, made us feel very, very vulnerable. The year before that, we had severe flooding, which put our water supply at risk for contamination. Both wet and dry years pose risks to groundwater, and climate models tell us that these cycles of floods and droughts aren’t going away.”

Jane: “The puzzle gets even more complicated when you couple it with human growth and demand. It takes 37 gallons of water to make a single cup of coffee. It takes 1,000 gallons of water for a single hamburger, or a single pair of jeans. Everything we do affects groundwater, so we need to be very thoughtful.”

… and education is the key.

Karen: “To make good decisions, we need good information. For example, the safety of hydraulic fracturing [fracking] for natural gas comes down to the geology of a particular site. But geology varies widely, even at short distances. We need to look at the data, fully understand the geology, before we can begin to understand how any given application might impact groundwater.”

Jane: “Individual actions have a tremendous collective impact. For example, farmers in Nebraska have learned that the soil retains more water if they leave corn stalks and soy stubble on their fields. So they’re doing that, even as they shake their heads and say, “If my grandfather saw my fields, he would be shocked.” Meanwhile, irrigation companies are tweaking their products to ensure that more water goes to plant roots. These adjustments make an enormous difference.”

Smith was a major influence …

Karen: “The world came alive for me at Smith. It’s possible my work can even be traced back to a single moment. I was learning about all the species that had become extinct since humans came on the scene. I thought, “My goodness. This is all so fragile. What can I do?” I think about that moment all the time. Smith gave me a fabulous education and lifelong friends. I had terrific mentors in the geology department. I even spent a semester in St. Croix, where I studied oceanography. I just loved it.”

Jane: “During my first week on campus, I met President Jill Ker Conway. I told her I was considering studying art history or premed, and she said, “Well, with such diverse interests, you’re in the right place.” I studied art history, went to Florence my junior year (where I married my husband), then returned to Italy for 16 years after graduation. When I came home to Nebraska, I took my experiences and put them to work in the nonprofit world. Although I hadn’t studied geology, I believe in taking on challenges. I believe passionately in the power of education. Ultimately it’s what I do today: help people make informed decisions about these huge issues that impact our lives.”

… but coming home feels great.

Karen: “When I left Nebraska for Smith, I thought I was leaving forever. And, indeed, I’ve traveled the world, lived in places like Santa Barbara and Boulder. But eventually, Nebraska drew me back home. I can have it all here—live in a wonderful community, be near family and have a meaningful career in the sciences, one that deals with important issues.”

Jane: “One of the greatest things we can do is travel, then bring that education, those experiences, back home.”

This article appears in the Summer 2014 Alumnae Quarterly