Richard A. Vollenweider is known for providing a generalized theoretical framework of the relationship between nutrient enrichment and eutrophication (the process by which water becomes rich in dissolved nutrients and deficient in oxygen) of fresh waters. In a fundamental reform of the dominant limnological thinking of the time, he discarded the idea that predictions could only be made based on individual lake studies. He provided the first generalized predictions of a lake’s trophic (nutritional) state from quantitative data on the lake’s nutrient load and hydrology.
Vollenweider’s work found direct application at the end of the 1960s, when the effects of urbanization, industrialization and intensification of agriculture after the Second World War resulted in excessive nutrient enrichment of runoff and severe problems due to overgrowth of plant life in rivers, lakes and reservoirs. From 1966 to 1981, Vollenweider was the chief co-ordinator of a worldwide scientific effort launched by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, France. Over this period, he was responsible for documenting his approach, directing technical reports on methodology, regional reports of quantitative results, a summary synthesis report and finally a test of all results using information on more than 200 Canadian lakes. These documents provided a sound basis for water management to alleviate or prevent eutrophication. It was through his involvement in the International Joint Commission that the limit was set for phosphorus loading to the Great Lakes in the 1972 Agreement between Canada and the United States of America on Great Lakes Water Quality. This limit prevented severe eutrophication of the world’s largest supply of fresh water.
In 1973, Vollenweider was named senior scientist at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters in Burlington, Ontario. He travelled throughout the world on assignments with UNESCO and directed major programs for preservation of the Adriatic Sea and Lake Maracaibo. In 1986, Vollenweider was awarded the Tyler Prize (a US award, considered equivalent to a Nobel Prize in environmental science) and in 1987 the Naumann-Thiennemann Medal by the International Limnological Society (Societus Internationalis Limnologiae).