Emeritus Spotlight: Jonathan Bulkley

Emeritus Professor Jonathan Bulkley became hooked on civil engineering combined with political science during an undergraduate class project in his sophomore year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in which he had to meet and speak with local residents about the proposed discontinuation of a commuter train.

“I really enjoyed being out and dealing with this real issue,” Bulkley says.

His love of working on civil engineering projects continues today as he serves on the Board of Directors for the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy, a group that is developing a multipurpose greenway connection along the historic alignment of Allen Creek in Washtenaw County. The connection would feature a walking and bicycle path as well as three parks and connections to downtown Ann Arbor.

He says his bachelor’s degrees in both political science and civil engineering help him work on these projects because his interdisciplinary education enables him to be mindful and aware of the politics involved with civil engineering problems.

One of the first groups he became involved with when he came to Ann Arbor was Citizens Opposed to Super Sewer (COSS). COSS was established in 1968 to combat the proposed construction of a "super sewer" system, which was going to be a centralized sewer line that would transport and treat sewage from Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw and Wayne counties before releasing it into Lake Erie. COSS believed this system could aggravate the water quality of the Huron River, among other issues.  COSS strongly supported upgrading the wastewater treatment facilities in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to provide tertiary treatment in order to return the highly treated water to the Huron River.  

Bulkley joined with two senior CEE faculty members, the late Professor Jack Borchardt and Emeritus Professor Eugene Glysson to provide the technical facts to COSS to expand the local treatment plants.  However, the mobilization of political support by the COSS Co-Chairs, Polly Reynolds-Warner, then a graduate student in the School of Public Health, and Joe O’Neal, President of O’Neal Construction, ‘turned the tide’. Their efforts reversed the decision to build the ‘super sewer’ and as a result both the Ann Arbor wastewater treatment plant and the Ypsilanti Area Community Utility were expanded and upgraded to tertiary treatment.   

This experience reinforced the concept that civil engineering projects often need political support to succeed.

Of the many projects he has worked on, there is one that changed his life. In 1960, after completing four years of his five year undergraduate degree program, Bulkley joined Operation Crossroads Africa, a program designed to promote the understanding of Africa and the African Diaspora.  Groups of young Americans and Canadians were teamed with counterpart young Africans to work on needed projects in West African countries.  His group went to the Ashanti Region of Ghana, fifteen miles outside of Kumasi and worked for two months in the bush constructing a water supply system for a rural training center. Part of the project required mixing of concrete by hand. The young Ghanaian women in the team would carry water in a large jug on their heads up hill from the stream to the construction site. One girl would kneel down and two other girls would place the jug filled with water on her head. This girl would stand up and bring the water up to the site where we mixed the concrete.

 “I had never lived in a place where you worried about snakes, army ants and malaria,” Bulkley says of the experience. “I had never been a minority before – suddenly I was different.  I had never witnessed young children with swollen stomachs from malnutrition or worms - one realized that many of these children would not survive.  A direct result of this experience led me to conclude that I should return and secure as much education as possible in the water field.  I came back highly motivated to apply to graduate school.”  

Bulkley returned to MIT and after completing his two undergraduate degrees applied to graduate school for a SM in Civil Engineering and a PhD in political science.  In addition to three political science focus areas, he completed a fourth area, water resources systems in the Department of Civil Engineering.  Following the completion of his SM and PhD, he served two years of active duty in the U.S. Army. He joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1968 as an assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) and assistant professor in the College of Engineering.

Bulkley was appointed by the late Judge John Feikens of the United States District Court in Detroit as a Special Master and later as a Monitor to assist the Court in resolving the multiple issues of non-compliance with the federal Clean Water Act in Southeast Michigan involving the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, the Wayne County Downriver wastewater treatment plant and additional water pollution issues in the region. Political issues as well as legal requirements needed to be considered in the process of bringing facilities into compliance with the law.

He was promoted to associate professor in 1971 and professor in 1977. From 1991-98, he was director of the National Pollution Prevention Center for Higher Education, located at the University of Michigan, and in 1998 he was appointed co-director of the Center for Sustainable Systems in the SNRE. He held the Peter M. Wege Endowed Professorship in Sustainable Systems from 2000- 11.

Bulkley is well known for his dedication to his students. At his retirement seminar, five of his former graduate students, spanning Bulkley's 43 years with U-M, came from around the country to speak.

They said Bulkley shaped their lives by teaching them about accessibility and respecting students.

"Jonathan listened attentively to us…that built confidence and inspired creative problem solving…You taught us how to think,” their testimonials state.

Bulkley is also known for his research on the development and application of both quantitative and qualitative means to help improve the planning, evaluation, and management of natural resources - especially water resources - to achieve sustainability. He has written on the risk associated with lead and mercury and wet-weather and wastewater flows, and has argued for holistic planning through watershed planning and management.

He is a nationally and internationally recognized expert on storm water, combined sewer overflows and water collections systems. During his 43-year career at the University of Michigan, Professor Bulkley has educated thousands of students, has served on numerous university committees and on statewide and national scientific committees, and has published widely in the areas of resource policy and sustainability in water resources.

Today, Bulkley continues to be an active member of the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy.  He also serves as a member of the City of Ann Arbor’s Technical Oversight Advisory Group, which is providing assistance on four wet weather projects currently underway.

His advice for students is to gain work experience.

“As undergrads, whenever possible, I would encourage taking on summer work experience that gets them into real life situations. Get experience with consulting firms or government agencies, volunteer your time and take advantage of faculty research projects. “


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