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  5. Kenneth and Ruth Wright among three to receive UW-Madison honorary degrees at spring commencement

Kenneth and Ruth Wright among three to receive UW-Madison honorary degrees at spring commencement

Ruth and Kenneth Wright

Ruth and Kenneth Wright. Photo courtesy of the Wrights.

A highly respected former Wisconsin politician congressman and a husband and wife team dedicated to advocating for water systems worldwide, ancient and modern, have been selected to receive honorary degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's May 13 spring commencement ceremony.

Robert W. Kastenmeier, Wisconsin's 2nd District Congressman from 1959-91, earned his LLB from the UW-Madison Law School and will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.

Ruth M. and Kenneth R. Wright, national and international leaders in environmental innovation, service and stewardship, will receive a joint honorary doctor of science degree.

About the Wrights:

“I dreamt that I had asked you to marry me and I think that’s a good idea.”

Penned on the back of a ski-boot receipt during an early-1950s trip to Austria, these words signaled the beginning of a partnership that repeatedly and wholeheartedly demonstrates Ruth and Kenneth Wright’s passion for each other and commitment to the environment. Their thorough, multidisciplinary efforts to study, document, preserve, protect and restore natural resources and public lands literally span the globe; among these personal and professional endeavors is key involvement in the South Platte River restoration and creation of a 10-mile-long riverfront parkway in Denver, Colorado, and myriad expeditions to Peru through which they have assembled multinational, multidisciplinary teams to methodically uncover, document and understand ancient Incan water systems. Locally, in their home city of Boulder, Colorado, they are legendary; internationally, they are both respected and renowned for their contributions in the unique field of paleohydrology.

“When I think of words to describe Ken and Ruth, the ones that come to mind are bright, participating and engaged, friendly, giving, athletic, visionary, practical and ethical,” says Neil Grigg, a Colorado State University professor of civil and environmental engineering. “If some of those seem antithetical, it is simply because the Wrights are so outstanding.”

Ruth received a bachelor’s degree in 1950 from Marquette University, attended the UW-Madison Law School, and earned her JD degree from the University of Colorado in 1972, while Ken earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil and environmental engineering from UW-Madison in 1951 and 1957, respectively, and a bachelor’s of business administration from UW-Madison, also in 1951.

Throughout her life, Ruth has been an engaged volunteer and active public servant, helping to formulate and implement natural resources policy. Although her professional career as a water resources attorney began several years earlier, she won her bid for a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives and served from 1981 to 1994. When in 1987, fellow Colorado Democrats elected her House Minority Leader, she was only the second woman in Colorado history to hold that position. During her tenure in the Colorado legislature, Ruth was known as a champion of environmental causes and served on eight legislative committees, including the committee on Agriculture, Livestock & Natural Resources and the Colorado Commission on Achievement in Education. Various organizations recognized her nearly a dozen times as legislator of the year. “The stories she has told me of her life in the legislature … make it clear that she had a gift for using exactly the right balance of humor and seriousness, diplomacy and determination, in everything she undertook,” says Patricia Nelson Limerick, a University of Colorado history professor.

Early in her career, Ruth was a gubernatorial appointee to the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. As a commissioner, she spearheaded a new stream classification system and water quality standards for all Colorado rivers, based on the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972. Among her contributions to environmental causes, she has chaired a Colorado task force that developed guidelines for using sludge as agricultural fertilizer and co-authored Boulder County floodplain regulations. Within the city of Boulder, she formulated a building height limit that considers enormous population growth, yet preserves unobstructed views of the adjacent Flatirons rock formations. “This success is due in no small part to Ruth’s foresight and far-sightedness in working with like-minded citizens to anticipate and channel development in the area in ways that have kept it both beautiful and functional,” says David Skaggs, a former Colorado and U.S. Representative.

Dedicated to her community, Ruth is a member of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District board of directors, which manages the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation trans-mountain projects and distributes valuable water resources to municipal, industrial and agricultural water users on Colorado’s Eastern Slope. She also serves on the Colorado Water Trust and Colorado Open Lands boards of directors and is a member of the U.S. Commission on Irrigation and Drainage. 

Ken, too, is passionate about community service. He served four years on the Boulder City Council while at the same time filling multiple roles in service to his profession. He has served as chairman of the American Society of Civil Engineers Colorado section hydraulics group and has chaired the society’s national hydrology committee and its hydraulics division executive committee. He also was first chairman of the American Council of Engineering Companies national public relations committee and served as both council national director and its Colorado president.

Colleagues and competitors consider Wright Water Engineers (the company Ken founded in 1961) Colorado’s leading water-resources engineering company. Ken himself is known as an innovator in and authority on water engineering, water rights and hydrology. “Ken is a solution-oriented engineer who achieves workable solutions for his clients because of his immense understanding of water resources and water administration,” says Dick Wolfe, Colorado Department of Natural Resources Division of Water Resources director. “It is this knowledge and understanding of the people and their cultures that has ultimately led him on such successful discoveries of ancient water resources not only within southwestern Colorado, but around the world.”

Among his many U.S. projects, Ken has served as a consultant under Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm to manage recovery efforts after a 1976 flood that killed more than 140 people. He wrote an urban storm drainage criteria manual in 1969 that now has become the leading global guide in urban drainage and flood control. He completed the master plan for redeveloping the South Platte River and 10-mile greenway in Denver, Colorado, an initiative widely hailed for the universal applicability of its state-of-the-art design and engineering features. “Most water engineers are content to have a successful and renumerative practice in a home state or region,” says Skaggs. “Ken has shown a tireless determination to advance knowledge in and beyond his field and, literally, to unearth history.”

In 2006, the American Council of Engineering Companies of Colorado named Ken among the 11 most fascinating Colorado engineers over the past 50 years. He has earned the history and heritage award (2001) and lifetime achievement award (2005) from and honorary membership (2006) in the American Society of Civil Engineers. Wright Water Engineers, which employs about 50 people and has some-450 active clients throughout the United States, received a Colorado ethics in business award (1996) and an American ethics in business award (1999). Ruth’s honors include three citations from the University of Colorado Law School—most recently in 2002, when it presented her the Knous Award, the highest award for law alumni.

While Ruth and Ken have distinguished themselves individually, they have had an almost greater impact as a team. “Here at Colorado State, we know Ruth as a community leader, state legislator, and partner to the engineering and water resources work of Wright Water [Engineers],” says Grigg. “She takes an equal role with Ken in many of their projects and outreach activities and seems to model exactly the right balance between promoting her own legal and political work and being supportive of Ken’s activities with Wright Water and philanthropy.”

In 1974, Ruth and the couple’s daughters visited Machu Picchu, a breathtaking Peruvian mountaintop site ancient Incan people constructed, inhabited and abruptly abandoned. These early engineers incorporated many fountains into their living spaces—and Ruth returned, wondering where the water came from. The two spent the next 20 years seeking permits from the Peruvian government to conduct research at the site. Finally, in 1994, the two began a series of expeditions to Machu Picchu that included teams of hydrologists, geologists, archaeologists, geographers, soil scientists, pollen analysts and others from Wright Water Engineers and other organizations, and Peruvian community members and archaeologists. Among the latter was the late Alfredo Valencia Zegarra, who also collaborated with Ken on the book, Machu Picchu, A Civil Engineering Marvel, and with Ruth on The Machu Picchu Guidebook: A Self-guided Tour.

Ken and Ruth approached Machu Picchu not as archaeologists, but as engineers who deciphered and mapped the ways in which the Incas delivered clean water through their community via an ingenious system of springs, canals and fountains. The Wrights have conducted a similar study at Tipon, near the Inca capital of Cuzco; at the Inca site Moray, they are unlocking the mysteries of the site’s curious concentric terraces. “The Wrights’ research is both unique and different,” says Brian Fagan, University of California at Santa Barbara anthropology professor emeritus. “Their work goes far beyond mere archaeology and the reconstruction of the Andean past. In this regard, with their multidisciplinary approach, they have filled in many gaps in our knowledge of Inca history and made a unique contribution to our understanding of one of the world’s great pre-industrial civilizations.”

Shortly after their return to Machu Picchu, Ken and Ruth founded the Wright Paleohydrological Institute to provide a platform for this and other research in the United States, France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Jordan. Among those sites is Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, in which Ruth and Ken and their multidisciplinary team proved a decades-old hypothesis that four unique structures were, in fact, ancient Anasazi (Puebloan) reservoirs. Not only did this research debunk other theories that the basins were dance plazas or social gathering places, it also uncovered related water-management structures that led to greater understanding of the ways in which ancient people maintained them over time. Based on Ken’s nominations, the American Society of Civil Engineers designated the Mesa Verde reservoirs a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 2004, and the Machu Picchu and Tipon sites as International Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks in 2006. For their paleohydrological activities, Ken and Ruth also are recipients of numerous awards. Among the most recent is a 2007 award from the Peruvian government, which presented Ken and Ruth its Order of Merit for Distinguished Services. In 2009, National Engineering University of Peru awarded Ken an honorary doctorate and Ruth, the title of honorary professor. “By any standards, these are two truly exceptional people, a quintessential team of equal partners, whose contributions to the study of ancient climate change and to our knowledge of paleohydrology are of international, and lasting, importance and significance,” says Fagan. “Few fieldworkers make lasting contributions to archaeology on this scale, let alone as a part-time undertaking, which makes their work even more remarkable.”

Ken and Ruth welcome opportunities to share their knowledge and experiences with others, not only through their books and technical publications, but also through appearances on radio and television, print media, and through lectures and talks for water resources professionals, water attorneys, engineering students, and public audiences. They also have made many of their photographs and documentation available to the public for free via the Wright Paleohydrological Institute website.
Despite their seeming singular focus on water, Ken and/or Ruth also participate in various athletics, including foot races, cross-country skiing, and mountaineering. They are active and enduring supporters of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, KVOD Public Radio, and the United Nations Foundation, and have funded and participated in many university initiatives, courses and events. “As eminent and nationally recognized leaders and societal contributors and pacesetters, Mr. and Mrs. Wright bring distinct honor to their professions, their community and society,” says Richard Weingardt, chairman of Richard Weingardt Consultants. “Their long record of achievement and standing nationally and internationally clearly demonstrates they have contributed greatly to mankind and have attained recognized superiority in all their endeavors.” 

Renee Meiller