John D. Bredehoeft

1997 Robert E. Horton Medal Winner

The Hydrodynamics Group, La Honda, California

John Bredehoeft was awarded the Robert E. Horton Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on December 10, 1997, in San Francisco, California, USA. The Robert E. Horton Medal recognizes an outstanding contribution to the geophysical aspects of hydrology.


“John D. Bredehoeft has been awarded the Robert E. Horton Medal for outstanding contributions to the geophysical aspects of hydrology. That this is well deserved is beyond question. Befitting the purpose of this award, I begin by noting that John is among the few whose contributions to hydrology include several that are also noteworthy in the realm of classical geophysics. How many hydrologists do we know who were involved not only in studying but also in creating earthquakes? John did this as a participant in the well-known Rangely, Colorado, experiments (where earthquakes were created and controlled by high-pressure fluid injection). He followed up on this by contributing to the Parkfield, California, earthquake studies, where he was a proponent of using water wells as strain meters to monitor Earth deformation near faults, partly in search of potential earthquake precursors. It is difficult to envision a stronger link between geophysics and hydrology than these two examples.

“However, John has done so much more, and of course the Horton Medal is not predicated just on research as a geophysicist, per se. John is recognized internationally as a pioneer in the study of groundwater flow systems.

“Among the aspects that characterize John’s work is his multidisciplinary approach to solving difficult problems. He has made important advances linking groundwater hydrology with geophysics, geochemistry, tectonics, petroleum engineering, economics, and numerical methods. Another characteristic of John’s contributions is his ability to relate and link theoretical advances to field problems. He has developed many practical tools and methods in use today on the basis of sophisticated and complex technical analyses. Conversely, many of his contributions to basic theoretical scientific advances have evolved from his identification of particularly difficult and vexing field problems. John’s extraordinary talents and contributions have great breadth and depth, since they extend beyond the purely technical realm of science and engineering into the less-concrete realms of the management of natural resources, the management and administration of research organizations, and even the philosophy of science.

“A common thread running through much of John’s work is his interest in the role of fluids in geologic processes. John’s first publication, in 1963, was the first quantitative examination of membrane filtration in the subsurface. His 1967 paper on the response of aquifers to Earth tides is extensively cited as the seminal paper on that topic. His 1968 papers on anomalous fluid pressure were the first cogent analyses of geologic processes as hydrologic driving forces and the first recognition of anomalous pressures as hydrodynamic transients. His analysis of thermal profiles for estimating groundwater flow rates is elegantly simple, yet has proven to be of tremendous utility. He was among the first to use hydraulic fracturing as a method for determining the state of stress in the subsurface. Thirty years ago, many geologists barely recognized the existence, let alone the importance, of subsurface fluids. That is no longer true today, and geologists in great numbers are now looking at how groundwater controls or influences ore deposits, hydrocarbon reservoirs, tectonic processes, volcanic events, and almost every other subfield of geological and geophysical sciences.

“In the realm of groundwater systems analysis, John has made several fundamental contributions to methods of well test analysis. His 1965 paper on drill stem tests helped make available a huge amount of subsurface permeability data in the petroleum industry that had not been previously tapped by hydrologists. He was also instrumental in the development of the rigorous theory of slug tests, now one of the basic tools of the field hydrogeologist that is used with increasing frequency in the study of subsurface contamination sites. Finally, he extended the slug test technique to solve the difficult problem of field measurement of very low permeabilities.

“Most practicing hydrogeologists today routinely apply computer simulation models to help them understand and solve the particular problem being addressed. They all owe a debt of gratitude to John Bredehoeft, who helped pioneer the development and application of digital simulation of groundwater systems when most hydrologists were still using analog models. His papers, particularly those coauthored with George Pinder, are widely recognized as standard references in groundwater model analysis. Many model developers built upon the basics that John laid out, and many of today’s flow and transport modelers use programs based on his work. In the early 1970s, John was among the few who saw the significance and pervasiveness of groundwater contamination problems: this was a motivating factor for his development and application of solute-transport models. Less than 20 years later, dealing with groundwater contamination has become a multibillion dollar a year industry, probably exceeding even John’s usually accurate foresight about wide-reaching issues.

“Regional groundwater flow has been another persistent theme in John’s research. His work on geological membranes marked the first rational explanation of the Illinois Basin’s distinctive brine pattern in terms of regional flow. His later innovative analysis of the Dakota artesian aquifer system showed how shale confining layers mediated aquifer behavior. He demonstrated for the first time the tempering effects of water storage in shale and obtained the first regional permeability values for tight shales.

“John has been a thoughtful and influential critic of the nation’s research initiative for disposal of nuclear wastes. He coauthored the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) position paper on this subject in 1978. John also challenged prevailing views of the impermeability of salt at the WIPP site in New Mexico (designed for storing transuranic wastes in salt beds) and postulated the consequences of Darcian flow through the salt on the repository’s integrity. This paper significantly altered the course of action of Department of Energy contractors. A few years ago, John was also asked to evaluate a major criticism of the proposed high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. His efforts helped to resolve the issue of whether seismic activity there could raise water levels enough to flood the repository (which it would not).

“Most scientists get sufficient satisfaction from seeing their research results published and recognized by their peers. John strives for more, and he recognizes a need for society to benefit from the research that taxes are supporting. His interest in promoting a `practical payoff’ of science is illustrated in the area of groundwater management, where the papers of Bredehoeft and Young represent pioneering work. He showed how economic theories can be applied in light of realistically variable hydrogeologic conditions to develop policies for water allocation or development of groundwater resources. In subsequent papers, John analyzed topics such as groundwater depletion, conjunctive use, and artificial recharge. Among other things, he demonstrated the fallacy of basing groundwater management rules (such as restrictions on pumpage) on computed water budgets (or recharge rates) for conditions prevailing prior to development.

“John is not only a leading scientist, but a leader of scientists. John served for many years as Chief of the National Research Program of the Water Resources Division (WRD) of the USGS, which at that time employed close to 300 scientists and engineers. In this position, John substantially increased the relevance and visibility of this hydrologic research program. He later served for several years as Regional Hydrologist for the operational program in the eight-state Western Region of WRD. His successful efforts to create a `research-in-the-District’ program has led to the better balance between scientific investigations and data collection throughout WRD that exists at the present time. Perhaps the most amazing feat is that John remained a productive scientist and researcher during the years he served as a manager.

“In summary, it is clear that John Bredehoeft’s scientific talent, productivity, and leadership in groundwater and related fields have made outstanding contributions to the geophysical aspects of hydrology. These contributions attest to John’s stature as a leading thinker on water-related issues of scientific and social importance. John’s advice on problems of national and international concern is valued: he has served on numerous panels and committees dealing with a wide range of water-related issues. Many of his personal research achievements rank as milestones of modern hydrology and have served as the basis for the work of others in the field. His creativity and originality of thought, his insight and ability to identify the most critical and worthwhile problems of the day, and his generous support and encouragement of young scientists combine to make him a role model for others to emulate.

“John, I speak for your many colleagues, and your former students, in stating that we strongly believe that your numerous scientific achievements, scientific contributions, and scientific spirit (most notably encompassing your strong support for students and young scientists), have made you most deserving of this prestigious Robert E. Horton Medal. Congratulations!”

—LEONARD F. KONIKOW, U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia


“I am pleased to join a number of distinguished hydrologists in receiving the Horton Medal. I have been fortunate to know most of them personally.

“As Allan Freeze pointed out upon receiving the M. King Hubbert Award, luck plays a part in all our careers. I was lucky to go to the University of Illinois, where my major professor and mentor was Burke Maxey. He instilled in those of us who were associated with him a demand for excellence. Upon receiving my Ph.D. in the early 1960s, I was lucky to go to work at the U.S. Geological Survey. I arrived at a time when I could apprentice with some of the best professionals engaged in the study of groundwater. It was with Bob Bennett, Hilton Cooper, C.V. Theis, Bob Stallman, Herb Skibitski, Jacob Rubin, and Walter Langbein that I was able to learn my profession. These individuals built much of groundwater science as we know it today. Many young people do not have the opportunity to apprentice with a group of senior mentors as I did at the USGS. I owe my maturity as a scientist to them.

“The USGS gave me the opportunity to pursue my research more or less unfettered. Like any successful individual, I paid my dues both in doing research that furthered the everyday missions of the Water Resources Division and, in the tradition of the USGS, doing my stints of administration. I had opportunities to leave, but each time I evaluated leaving I came to the conclusion that the USGS afforded the best opportunity to do the research that interested me. I left the Survey in 1994 to do something different during the rest of my life: to build a consulting business. That too has been fun.

“My research involved the investigation of various facets of fluids in the subsurface. I have moved around from topic to topic in my research, always with the focus on fluids in the subsurface. It always seemed there was more to learn: that was the fun in this endeavor. The USGS afforded the freedom to pursue my interests.

“One does make major contributions in any of life’s endeavors with the support of your family. My family has been most supportive, especially my wife, Nancy. I would especially like to thank Nancy.

“I am pleased to accept the Horton Medal for myself, as well as my colleagues in research in the Water Resources Division at the USGS, and especially my other colleagues who study fluids in the Earth. The award to me recognizes all of us.”

—JOHN D. BREDEHOEFT, The Hydrodynamics Group, La Honda, California