Coastal Engineer Gene Clark was working for the state of Minnesota as a lakeshore engineer on the North Shore when he learned there was an opening at Wisconsin Sea Grant.
Nearing the end of his career, which included working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and as a private consultant, the decision to join Wisconsin Sea Grant 15 years ago was "just the perfect way to end my career," Clark said. "I was able to utilize previous experience, my education, I feel, to make a difference up here ... because we have so many different types of issues here."
As Clark settles into retirement, he credits the teams of people he's been able to work with over the years with the success found in dealing with a variety of issues that affect Lake Superior, the Great Lakes and even the nation's waterways.
There are three projects that Clark says stand out as memorable.
Apostle Island safety
Clark said the SeaCavesWatch.org project started early in his tenure with Wisconsin Sea Grant when then-Apostle Islands National Lakeshore superintendent Bob Krumenaker started asking about waves and the possibility of measuring them out near the sea caves.
"The wave conditions, he perceived, were not the same, and he was right," Clark said. "At times, the waves at the beach will be pretty mild and safe, and by time, they get to the caves with the vertical walls and the caves themselves, the waves reflect, amplify and become really dangerous."
At the time, Krumenaker said there had been four deaths of kayakers over the past several years.
"The common element of every one of their deaths was people who underestimated the wave conditions and/or they overestimated their own ability," Krumenaker said.
So Krumenaker posed the questions to Clark and Chin Wu, a civil and environmental engineer, and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, while at Little Sand Bay to look at a sedimentation issue at a marina there.
Krumenaker said his goal was to find a way to measure the waves at the cave and communicate that information in real time to kayakers so they could make better decisions about when it is safe to paddle out to the caves.
The project involved putting a sensor under the water, and running a cable that snaked up a cliff to a transmitter hidden in the woods, according to Krumenaker, who didn't want visual distractions from the natural appeal. With no cell service in the area, he said Wu and his graduate students developed a directional antenna that forced a signal to a cell tower on the North Shore, which delivered the data collected to UW-Madison. A website was created to provide the information to public in real time.
Clark said a camera system was installed at the site, which added information available for kayakers and park staff alike.
"Maybe a two-foot wave doesn't sound too bad, but what does it look like," Clark said. "Well they could see that from the picture."
Krumenaker, now superintendent at Big Bend National Park in south Texas, said a solar-power kiosk was added at Meyer's Beach so people could access the information even they couldn't get service on their smartphone.
Clark said he's proud that there have been no deaths at the sea caves since the system was implemented.
"We enjoyed working with Gene ... he's provided tremendous public service," Krumenaker said. He said when he lived in Wisconsin he learned about the Wisconsin Idea - taking the education and knowledge of the University of Wisconsin and spread it across the state.
"Gene is a really good example of that," Krumenaker said. He's publicly funded, tied to the university, working for Sea Grant, and his job is helping people."
It wasn't just people Clark's work helped - he's helped industry too.
Freshwater corrosion in the Duluth-Superior harbor was revealed when a diver with a local consulting firm started seeing pittine and holes in steel sheet pile - something unheard of in the Great Lakes.
Clark said he first learned about the issue during a presentation at the Harbor Technical Advisory Committee meeting.
"It was hard for me to believe that our steel was deteriorating in freshwater," Clark said. "It should be just pristine from when it was put in."
He said a team of local, regional and national experts formed and studies were developed to eliminate typical causes for the problem.
"It was easier to eliminate what wasn't causing it than to identify what it was," Clark said. "It was eventually determined to be a freshwater bacteria that we have naturally occuring in our harbor."
Clark said the studies took two tracts, with Minnesota Sea Grant looking for the cause and his team finding solutions.
He said studies were done with different types of coatings were done and several were found that would work in the local environment.
"We also found many that won't," Clark said "It's a common problem in salt water but not in freshwater, much less than harbors like the Duluth-Superior Harbor with the ice - the ice could just peel off the coatings."
He said it was other contractors and engineers that figured out how to apply the coatings to steel and encapsulate pilings already in place so the bacteria couldn't cause any more damage.
Making something from muck
"The Army Corps of Engineers started to get the word out that the existing locations where the dredge material had been going since the 1970s, which were called confined disposal facilities, like our Erie Pier, are filling up and over 80 percent of the Great Lakes ones are basically filled," Clark said.
Clark said the focus turned to determining how the material could be used. He said studies were done in the Twin Ports as well around the Great Lakes to find ways use the material to extend the use of the facilities that cost $25 million to create. He said while the sand derived from dredge material is something they have no trouble getting rid of because it can be used in many types of construction, there have been many challenges to use the resource, such as the perception of contamination, that made it difficult to create other opportunities for using the material.
"The Duluth-Superior harbor is just one of the shining examples right now for the Great Lakes about being able to utilize the material," Clark said. "We have placed over 1 million cubic yards of dredge material back into our harbor for the enhancement of habitat."