The 2020 Henry Darcy Medal is awarded to Xavier Sánchez-Vila in recognition of his innovative theoretical work and practical solutions regarding aquifer characterisation, subsurface solute transport processes and managed aquifer recharge.
Xavier Sanchez-Vila is a leader and a reference in the field of quantitative groundwater hydrology. He has not only made lasting contributions to the fundamental problems of groundwater hydrology, but has also managed to apply these findings to everyday water engineering problems, often changing the way these problems are faced in real life. Sanchez-Vila has enriched and pushed our ability to characterise physical processes in complex porous systems beyond previous boundaries. The groundbreaking nature of his research and the combination of its depth, breadth and interdisciplinarity constitute important steps forward for science and society.
In Sanchez-Vila’s early work, he looked at the interpretation of groundwater pumping tests from a unique and original perspective, allowing an understanding of the role of heterogeneity in groundwater flow. This work has advanced the understanding of the physical meaning of the hydraulic parameters derived from pumping tests, and the innovative methods developed by Sanchez-Vila to characterise aquifers at the field scale are now are well established among scientists and practitioners.
In recent years, Sanchez-Vila has been using the same approach (gaining an understanding from applications and then developing new concepts to finally provide practitioners with effective application tools) for improving the efficiency of infiltration water treatment methods and the productivity of Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) methods. He is in fact studying, in close collaboration with biologists and ecohydrologists, the impact of biogeochemical processes on water flow in soils and sediments and is unveiling how the interplay between biofilm formations and changes in hydraulic properties of the subsurface (e.g., bio-clogging) affect the performance of artificial recharge ponds. This is one of the new frontiers of practical hydrology in water-scarce regions.
Sanchez-Vila’s research has contributed to advancing the quantitative analysis of subsurface transport by developing new transport theories in porous media. He formulated effective flow and transport equations to include new terms stemming from the multiplicity of scales and processes, and he conducted seminal works on the quantification of the role of heterogeneity on a variety of reactive transport scenarios.
Xavier Sanchez-Vila is not just an outstanding researcher, but also a great teacher and mentor, encouraging students and colleagues (in his roles as editor, head of academic programs, and leader of academic or professional societies) to always be driven by the practical impact of our research on people’s lives.