Hydrogeologist Gary Robbins develops ways to monitor groundwater supply and quality

Gary Robbins
Gary Robbins

“In the last 100 years we have learned very little about our bedrock groundwater resources. Rock has natural fractures, some of which carry water. We drill into the fractures to tap the water. We can’t answer basic questions of how deep to drill, how much water, where to drill,” says Professor Gary Robbins, an expert on hydrogeology.

Robbins’ journey to become head of UConn’s Groundwater Program, recognized as one of the Northeast’s leading programs in applied hydrogeology, began when he was a boy and walked into the Museum of Natural History in his hometown of New York City with his brother. He entered the rock room and his life was forever changed.

“I never thought of a career in geology until that moment. It led me to take earth science in high school and major in geology in college,” said Robbins, now a professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and a faculty member in the Center for Integrative Geosciences at the University of Connecticut.

After receiving an undergraduate degree from Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, NY, Robbins attended Brown University for his MS and later Texas A&M for his PhD. At all three institutions, he focused his studies on geology. While Robbins was always interested in teaching, he also wanted to do something practical and hands-on. He worked as an intern for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, studying disposal of radioactive waste. This led him to the study of groundwater, a personal and professional interest that informs his work inside and outside the classroom.

Robbins joined the UConn faculty in 1986 in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. In 2004, he moved to the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources because of his interest in water-related work and his desire to find practical applications for his expertise.

“I love my work. The environment is terrific in [the College]. I don’t have an Extension appointment, but I like working with people and helping them solve problems,” Robbins says.

Jill Libby and Dariusz Chlebica
Jill Libby (MS, 2012) and Dariusz Chlebica (MS, 2013) conduct a new bedrock well dye test to locate water contributing fractures in bedrock wells.

Robbins and a historian recently led a group of 100 people on a tour of the Talcottville district of Vernon to look at the geology of old mill sites. He has given other geology tours for senior citizens and local land trusts. Robbins has also worked as a consultant to a number of towns across Connecticut, the state’s insurance companies, private firms and the public on issues related to groundwater.

Since 2005 Robbins’s work has evolved. Half his time is spent working on water resources sustainability, conservation and management, efforts that began with the study of gasoline contamination in water supplies. Robbins concentrates on developing cost-effective ways to find where contaminants originate. His new method uses dissolved oxygen to test how water flows into wells through various fractures. The process promises to provide much more detail than is now available in locating sources of water pollution, at greatly reduced cost.

According to Robbins, there are 300,000 wells in the state for which there are data based on records maintained by well drilling operations. Robbins’s work focuses on digitizing the information so the data can be used to answer important questions such as where drilling should occur, how much water is available and how much water is being used. This year alone, he has published four papers on these issues.

Currently, he is working on a proposal to the City of Stamford to help them evaluate risks associated with arsenic, uranium and pesticides that might be in the bedrock water supply.

“I hope I can help Stamford. This is an enormous opportunity for us as it is the largest set of data for a city on pesticide contamination. This is the tip of the iceberg, and other places face the same issues. It would be a great pilot study,” says Robbins.

Closer to Storrs, Robbins is engaged in projects using dissolved oxygen to trace borehole flow in crystalline bedrock. Using borehole records from 2,500 domestic wells in bedrock in the Coventry Quadrangle, he and his students are analyzing many factors, including recharge rates. On campus in Storrs, they monitor four well fields, including one at the Plant Science Research Center.

Not beer, but Robbins’ new in situ method using air to locate water contributing fractures to bedrock water wells.

Climate change is altering the way water is used, according to Robbins. In the developing world, water is being diverted for irrigation at the expense of drinking water. The quality of water is pivotal to human health, and many people become ill or die from waterborne diseases.

“The real problem with water and humans is distribution. At some point we may find it necessary to ship water to places where it is needed. It is essential for life and we take it for granted,” Robbins asserts.

Robbins holds a patent on an “apparatus and method for measuring volatile constituents in earth samples” and is the recipient of extensive honors and distinctions in his profession.

Whether helping the town of Killingly address a water problem beneath the gym of their new high school or responding to the concerns of a homeowner worried about the effects of contaminated water on her family, Gary Robbins is ready to apply the lessons of science to real life.

By Nancy Weiss