A Worldwide View of Water

October 28, 2020

By Brock Parker

A group of people standing in snow.

Earth is made up of approximately 71 percent water, and the majority of people might be lucky enough to see a fraction of that with their own eyes. For Dr. Glenn Tootle, he’s seen more than the average person. His passion for one of life’s most precious resources takes him around the globe to study how it flows and impacts the world around us. It’s also recently earned him a Fulbright Scholar Grant to continue his research abroad.

Tootle’s career as a civil engineer specializing in water seemed like it was meant to happen from the beginning. Growing up in Florida, he was working as a state park lifeguard during his senior year and noticed people from the U.S. Geological Survey measuring the flow rate of the nearby river. Watching them work piqued his interest, and he soon pursued his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Florida. He would eventually earn his Ph.D. in 2005 from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before establishing his teaching career.

“I’m not the traditional faculty member,” said Tootle, a professor in UA’s Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering. “I took a 12-year break and was employed as a civil engineer in consulting engineering and the private sector doing water resources.”

During that time, he also served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy as part of the Seabees. He said people often ask if his love of water brought him to that specific branch of the Armed Forces.

“I’ve never been on a ship in my life,” he said. “That’s a true statement other than touring the U.S.S. Missouri and Pearl Harbor. I simply thought that the Seabees is the most prestigious group of civil engineers in our military.”

Tootle was drawn to that unit thanks to “The Fighting Seabees,” a 1944 movie featuring John Wayne. He said if “The Duke” can make a movie about them, then they have to be pretty special. However, their mission is what solidified his love for the unit.

“It’s amazing what the Seabees do all over the world not just in combat, but also in a humanitarian assistance environment,” he said. “They provide clean water as far as water well operations, building schools and those types of things.”

Tootle retired as a captain from the Navy after 25 years, which included two mobilizations after 9/11 and service as commanding officer for Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Two Five. Upon finishing his Ph.D. at UNLV, his academic career began out West where he and his students started researching glaciers and streamflow by using paleohydrology, which is the study of how water flowed before recorded history.

One thing he learned is how paleohydrology is more established in the West than in the South. For example, the Colorado River Compact of 1922 allocated a certain amount of water per acre to the states served by the river. That compact was signed when the flow was at its peak, but by using paleohydrology, studying how sediment has shifted and examining tree rings, researchers can look back 500 to 1,000 years and see that the flow is naturally less and cannot deliver what was promised a century ago.

“You have the double-edged sword, so to speak,” he said. “You have the set allocations for these states of water. Combine that with the fact that you’ve had tremendous population growth in these areas, and the water just is not there.”

In the South, precipitation, moisture and water have historically been more abundant than in the West, so the need for paleohydrology hasn’t been as extensive. However, it doesn’t mean that part of the country couldn’t use the help. The three most southeastern states have been involved in legal battles over water distribution for decades. Paleohydrology can help determine where certain allocations can be most helpful, such as for shellfish in Florida, agriculture in southern Georgia and energy resources in Alabama.

“I’ve been able to learn a lot from some really smart people out in the western part of the U.S.,” said Tootle. “Bringing that knowledge to the South, partnering up with some superstars here at The University of Alabama and doing this work will allow us to see what what’s happened in the past in the South, what’s happening right now and where we think we’re going to go.”

That work has also taken Tootle beyond American borders to see how streamflow and snowpack behaves. Every year since 2012, he has taken students to the University of Innsbruck in Austria. That area is a natural draw for him as he not only spent time in that region while in the Navy, but he is able to take the students onto a glacier. There they can see the water challenges facing a different area firsthand and how important the glaciers are in providing water for hydropower, drinking and agricultural needs.

“The scientists look more at the physics of the glacier,” he said. “The civil engineers, we’re more interested in how much water are we going to have, and are we going to be able to actually run this power plant? If we can’t, what do we need to do to keep power going to provide what they need to keep the towns and villages going?”

International education and research are two of Tootle’s biggest passions. After spending more than three decades in Europe between his military and teaching careers, he applied for his first Fulbright grant and was awarded a Fulbright Teaching and Research Scholar Award to the University of Trento in Italy. UniTrento was searching for someone with a civil engineering background, and he was the perfect fit.

“I haven’t seen much in the literature where they’ve done a lot of the paleo work over there,” he said. “The work my students and I have done in the past on glaciers and glacial recession, that being a glaciated region very similar to Innsbruck and Wyoming almost where you have the high mountains with the glaciers providing streamflow in the summer months, was an attraction.”

Tootle plans to spend up to four months teaching and researching at UniTrento. He said he makes it analogous to when he left the South to work and get his Ph.D. out West. He learned a lot about Western water, so learning about European water in northern Italy and Alpine watersheds is a project on which he’s ready to embark.

While there, he will also work on developing an exchange program with students from UA, UniTrento and the University of Innsbruck. In 2021, he is looking to expand his current study abroad program by partnering with a colleague from the University of Florida. With that joint venture, Tootle will be leading courses on paleohydrology while UF’s Dr. Ray Huffaker will teach economics and water policy.