Josh Olson had to travel halfway around the world to
appreciate something he had right at home — water. A disaster relief trip to
western China after a massive 2008 earthquake was a life changer for Olson, the
2013 National Ground Water Research and Educational Foundation’s Len Assante
Scholarship Fund Past President’s Award winner.
“We were up in the mountains in one of the bigger cities in
the region. Half the city had been destroyed and they were literally tearing
down everything that was left,” said Olson, now a hydrogeology undergraduate at
the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “That hit me. I really hadn’t seen
destruction on that level before.” With the city’s infrastructure obliterated,
he witnessed a water crisis.
On a subsequent trip to Tanzania, Olson observed a village trying
to get by without water when its supply was temporarily diverted for another
purpose by the government.
The trips “helped me realize that I like helping with
people’s physical needs…and water on a very fundamental level is one of the
most critical needs you can meet,” he said. Consequently, Olson continued, “My
big goal for going into hydrogeology is helping out overseas. I’m not sure if
that will be full time or frequent short trips.”
When he got into his field of study, Olson said he was
surprised how little he knew. “My general knowledge of groundwater, and proper
groundwater management and contamination issues, was minimal,” he stated.
As he learned more, he began to notice, with new eyes, water
resource issues in his home state of Wisconsin.
He also noticed something else — the public’s pervasive lack
of knowledge about water resources. “It’s almost alarming to me. We know so
much and there are so many things we could be doing better [with water
resources]. It struck me that this is largely a product of an uninformed
When asked what concerned him most about the future of
drinking water in the world, he could only respond with optimism. “When I talk
with people about water issues, it’s easy for them to get very pessimistic” due
to worries about issues such as contamination and water scarcity, said Olson.
“I keep an optimistic view. I tend to believe that with the knowledge we have,
and as many people as there are working on these issues, we can improve
things.” Due to circumstances such as widespread drought, Olson said he’s
starting to see a shift in public attitudes from one of water entitlement to a
growing appreciation for the preciousness of water.
While graduate school is in his near future, Olson can’t
help but contemplate the long-term. “I get excited when I realize there are
people all over the world who have a passion and strategies for managing water
resources that are potentially effective….If we were only able to implement
more of what we understand, we have the potential to really improve our water
about the NGWREF Len Assante Scholarship Fund and how you can make a donation
to help kids like Olson achieve their dreams.
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