Wake County

Life Stories: Because of Ralph Heath’s work, clean water flows for millions

Ralph Heath teaches a course for the USGS Water Resources Division Training School in 1970.
Ralph Heath teaches a course for the USGS Water Resources Division Training School in 1970. PHOTO COURTESY OF SUE JOHNSON

In North Carolina, all but three cities east of Interstate 95 depend on groundwater. In the mid-1980s, Ralph Heath realized that overdevelopment of that region, known as the central coastal plain, was going to lead to major issues with the precious aquifer that lies under 15 counties.

Heath, a retired hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, spent the next five years recruiting fellow scientists to educate state regulators and politicians about the inevitable danger to that water supply. The result, said Richard Spruill, an East Carolina University professor and one of the scientists involved, was one of the most comprehensive water management plans ever passed in the United States.

The plan, say colleagues and friends, was just one of countless examples in which Heath used his expertise to better his community.

Heath, 89, died this month. One of his principal legacies is the book “Basic Ground-Water Hydrology,” the most printed publication put out by the Geological Survey.

“He’s one of, in my view, the gods of hydrology,” said Mike Hoover, retired N.C. State soils professor and longtime friend.

Still, Heath is remembered for far more than his knowledge of water and rock.

Heath was the son of a Lenoir County tenant farmer. He was raised priming tobacco. His parents did not progress far past fourth grade and were barely functionally literate. They could only afford one pair of shoes a year, and Heath had to repeat the eighth grade because of an ingrown toenail.

This was how Heath came to be eligible for the V-12 Navy College Training Program. He would not have met its requirements had he graduated from high school on time. In his autobiography he wrote, “How could I have been so lucky?”

At 17, with his parents’ permission, he enlisted in the military, attending Midshipmen School at Columbia University, meeting his future wife, Martha, whom he called “the cutest little blue-eyed blonde” he’d ever seen, and touring the Pacific on mine-sweeping missions.

After the war, he finished his bachelor of science degree in geology at UNC-Chapel Hill. The discipline was related to the agricultural life of his youth but would not bring him back to the fields as a farmer. He soon joined the U.S. Geological Survey, where he specialized in hydrology.

During his tenure at the USGS, he wrote or co-authored more than 70 publications, working with some of the forefathers of hydrology, a field that really came into its own in the early part of the 20th century, Spruill said. Heath was acting district engineer in Tallahassee, Fla.; district geologist in Albany, N.Y., for New York and southern New England; district chief of New York and district chief in Raleigh.

Upon retirement, he set upon the next phase of his career, teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill, East Carolina, Duke and N.C. State. One of the scientists Health mentored, local hydrologist Kevin Martin, points to how impressive this list was, particularly for a professor without a graduate degree.

“He was the definition of a mentor – always there for you when you need help or guidance,” Martin said. “He believed real life experiences trumped book knowledge or theory.”

Heath met Mike Hoover while offering his guidance on a water usage problem in the northeastern part of North Carolina. Hoover marveled at Heath’s work from the beginning, and he marvels today at the two hydrogeologic maps Heath created in the late 1980s that document the groundwater patterns of all of North America – a feat that no one else, to his knowledge, has undertaken.

“He communicated through these maps. He communicated through these publications,” Hoover said. While many scientists make strong researchers, not all are able to communicate their knowledge to others. Colleagues say Heath was remarkably adept at both.

For all his professional glory, Heath was the consummate family man, said his daughter, Sue Johnson.

“At home he was very much present with us,” she said.

When his first child, William, was born with Down syndrome, he and his wife were encouraged to institutionalize him. Heath would not hear of it, and the couple worked together to teach their son how to live independently.

Heath was able to travel extensively with his wife, visiting the far-flung places he’d toured in the Navy, such as Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The two enjoyed 65 years of marriage – and many a “cocktail hour” – before Martha Heath died in 2013.

“You could see in his eyes that his mind went somewhere special when he talked about her,” Hoover said.

At Heath’s funeral, members of the N.C. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources reminded folks that some 4 million North Carolinians enjoy clean groundwater in large part thanks to Heath’s work.

“Ralph was a visionary,” Spruill said. “He really could see that problems were developing, but he could also offer solutions like no one I’ve ever seen.”