Mines News

Release Date Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Water Ambassador

In many ways the life of Mark Anderson has been shaped by water. He grew up along the banks of Rapid Creek and played in the Madison springs of his grandfather’s homestead at the headwaters of Little Spearfish Creek. As a Mines student, he was a first-hand witness to the devastation of the 1972 Black Hills Flood. The tragic event is part of what inspired him to pursue a career in hydrology and water resources. He finished his undergraduate degree in chemistry at Mines in 1974 and his masters in civil engineering in 1980. During his early in his career, in the 1980’s, Rapid City was facing a water supply shortage. He worked with the city to develop a more sustainable strategy of conjunctive use—a combination of surface water and groundwater. As a result, the city has a network of wells drilled into the Madison Aquifer, off the Rapid Creek flood plain, which is a critical part of the local water supply today.

Anderson’s career included leading research for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Arizona and the Dakota Water Science Center in Rapid City. He led and coordinated the first controlled flood in the US on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. He even did a stint as the director of the USGS-EROS Data Center in Sioux Falls. The massive archive of earth images begat Google Earth. While at the Dakota Water Center, Anderson developed an international program to help other countries around the globe deal with water supply challenges with technical training and capacity building. By these efforts, he was named a water ambassador part of a US State Department program and spent time in countries like Armenia, Mongolia, Zambia, and South Africa.

“One of the most satisfying parts of my career has been helping others solve their water supply challenges by sharing the technology we have developed here in the US”, says Anderson.

The problems of water availability and water quality are universal. What’s true in Tucson, is true in Cape Town. “You can’t believe what an impact you can have in some of these other countries by helping them to secure adequate access to clean water,” says Anderson. 

That impact is not just on the health and wellbeing of local inhabitants; water is often a key ingredient needed to spur local economic development in isolated and impoverished areas. “You look at a situation where women and children in many places in Africa spend half of their day fetching water. And the reality is when they are doing this, they aren’t in school or producing goods and services for the benefit of the local economy. So, securing a well can make a big difference beyond just drinking water,” says Anderson.

Solving the water needs of rural towns in the third-world may seem like a small problem, but Anderson says though different, these challenges can be just as complex as securing water for a major city like Los Angeles.

The needs for large cities to manage water in times of drought are paramount, especially as climate change continues to contribute to an increased frequency of extreme weather events.

“What always happens in times of drought is communities turn to drilling wells. This is happening in many cases in South Africa,” says Anderson. Cape Town gets most of its drinking water from rivers and streams stored in reservoirs. “During the last major drought, the city basically ran out of water. For Cape Town and elsewhere in Africa they need to know if local aquifers can sustain pumping at adequate levels,” Anderson says.

The issue is not just one that impacts foreign nations. Water security is a critical concern in the American West. “Whole towns are going without water right here in the United States. Managing groundwater is a complex problem, here and around the world,” says Anderson.

Breaking down that complexity, in the American West or in the rural areas of Zambia, is a task Anderson is well suited for. His experience in water issues ranges from a stint as a hydrologist in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest in the early 1980’s to three years at the White House as a Senior Policy Analyst in the Office of Science and Technology Policy under Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush.

Though his work has been global, Anderson says he has one regret about a local change that has not yet happened. “We have not been able to move the USGS onto the Mines campus.” Anderson worked for years to replicate the example of the University of Arizona and Colorado School of Mines, where USGS offices are co-located on university campuses to bolster collaboration and research.

The USGS is critical for maintaining a database about the local climate and hydrology. USGS data on the changing climate indicates that it’s the coming generations who will face the biggest challenges in water. Fortunately, for Mines students, Anderson is giving back to his alma mater by serving as an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering. He is using his life experience to inspire this next generation of problem solvers. For those young people considering a career in STEM Anderson has one message, “Come to Mines and make a difference.”


About South Dakota Mines  

Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,493 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 98 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $70,036. For these reasons  South Dakota Mines is ranked among the best engineering schools in the country for return on investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on FacebookTwitter, LinkedInInstagram, and Snapchat.

Contact: Mike Ray, 605-394-6082, mike.ray@sdsmt.edu