NEWARK -- When David Wunsch worked at the Kentucky Geological Survey, he studied the groundwater impact of the controversial mining technique known as mountain-top removal.
He found that, if done correctly, the stripe mining process could improve the watershed. Thanks in part to his efforts, a man-made lake and nature preserve are now where a pristine mountain once stood.
The finding didn't change how environmentalists or industrialists felt about the practice of mountain-top removal. But that wasn't the point. Providing accurate information was.
That finding of a middle ground is typical for a state geologist, Wunsch said.
And while coal mining disputes probably won't arise here, Wunsch will still be counted on to provide objective data on a range of natural resource issues as the new director of the Delaware Geological Survey.
Wunsch, 53, took the position this fall following the retirement of John H. Talley. The little-known quasi-state agency is based in a two-story building on the University of Delaware campus.
"It's tempting for people to say, 'Well, what do they do? They just collect a bunch of rocks,' " Wunsch said. "But it's much more than that."
Staff covers state
Wunsch and his 17-person staff monitor and study everything below the surface of the First State, from the rocky piedmont in northern New Castle County to the sandy sentiment near the ocean.
In Delaware, the biggest geological issue tends to be groundwater, which happens to be Wunsch's specialty.
"It's like medicine or the law; there's a huge number of different varieties of geologists," said Jim Cobb, Wunsch's old boss at the Kentucky Geological Survey. "David is a good fit for Delaware."
As proof of that, one need only look to Gov. Jack Markell's recent decision to vote against Marcellus shale drilling in the Delaware River Basin. Markell based his opposition on unanswered questions about the effect on aquifers from the extraction of natural gas from a geological formation below Pennsylvania and New York.
Downstream from larger states -- and with an agricultural community that depends on groundwater -- Delaware must watch its water supply closely, Wunsch said. As a result, the survey has plans to install more monitoring wells in Kent and Sussex counties in the coming years. Dozens of wells already track groundwater throughout the state, testing not only water quality but also looking for signs of drought or flood.
As it was for his mountain-top mining research, Wunsch will be a key source for objective data and study. Fertilizing or pesticide practices in a farming community, for example, might affect a fishing community elsewhere in the state.
"Our job isn't to spin or skew to one side or another," Wunsch said. "Anytime you work on something that impacts people's livelihood, you have to be very cautious."
In addition to its role in managing natural resources, the survey serves as a library of the state's geological makeup. Rooms on the ground floor of its building house thousands of boxes of mineral and sedimentary samples from every corner of the state, cataloged by location as well as its depth below the surface. They provide a reference source for architects and engineers because they give a snapshot of the earth below a building site and indicate whether it can support a structure.
The survey also works with the state to mitigate beach erosion and help determine where to dredge for sand replenishment.
"Geology is very tied to the economy of a state," he said. "You don't want to spend a million dollars to dredge sand, and then come up with nothing."
The state provides an annual subsidy for the operations of the survey. Like others throughout the state, the office lost some funding in 2008, when lawmakers squeezed the state budget.
But since then, its appropriation recovered a little and reached about $1.68 million in the budget passed in June, still less than the $1.77 million it once received.
The survey is also half funded through its affiliation with the Department of Geology in UD's College of Earth, Ocean and the Environment.
The survey's affiliation with a university attracted him to the position. Although not a requirement for his job, Wunsch plans to eventually teach courses in geology and public policy at UD.