A Career Solving Wicked, Sticky and Humongous Coastal Engineering Problems

When Gene Clark came aboard as Wisconsin Sea Grant’s coastal engineer 15 years ago, he knew he’d have some big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Phil Keillor, had worked in the position for almost three decades and had a respected reputation.

If Clark’s partners’ opinions are any measure, he more than rose to the task, and in the meantime helped solve some wicked, sticky and humongous problems plaguing coasts and landowners on lakes Michigan and Superior.

His standout accomplishments include the Sea Caves Watch Project, which is a boater safety effort in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the freshwater steel corrosion issue in Lake Superior and the beneficial reuse of material dredged from Great Lakes harbors.

Preventing Tragedies

The sea caves project was designed to prevent kayaking tragedies at the popular and potentially treacherous mainland sea caves on Lake Superior. It includes a website (SeaCavesWatch.org) where boaters can access real-time wave data, water temperature and wind speed before venturing out to the caves where conditions can quickly change. Co-led by Chin Wu, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the project proved so useful that the National Park Service took it over in 2015 as part of their regular work plan. No deaths have occurred at the caves since the system became publically available.

Clark said the project arose from working with Wu when he had Clark talk to his students on a field trip to Lake Superior. Former Park Superintendent Bob Krumenacker heard about the trip and asked Clark about his job.

“I told him we were showing some graduate students some typical ways a coastal engineer does water measurements,” Clark said. “He asked me if I could design a way that would allow him to tell what the waves were like in the mainland sea caves from his office, which was about 14 miles away in Bayfield. I said, ‘Oh yeah, that should be a piece of cake.’ ”

Well, it wasn’t quite that easy, but Clark, Wu and Wu’s student workers eventually developed a system to measure the wave heights, water temperature and take site photographs, which are posted to the website every half-hour.

Fixing Harbor Walls

Clark described freshwater steel corrosion as an issue that “came out of nowhere,” and said it could cause “humongous problems for the port if it wasn’t checked.”

The problem came to light in 1998 when an underwater inspector found huge holes in the metal sheet piling that lines the Duluth-Superior Harbor. Clark teamed with Minnesota Sea Grant, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to convene a panel of experts to investigate possible causes. With the help of researchers and product testing, coatings and other methods were found that mitigate the corrosion.

“Millions of dollars are being spent on infrastructure repair, but by using the technology it’s saving millions,” Clark said.

Clark’s work on the project earned him Sea Grant’s highest honor in 2014, the Sea Grant Association’s Research to Application Award.

Making Muck Useful

We’ve discussed the humongous problem. Now for the wicked problem – that of reuse and storage of dredged material. As part of local committees and as past co-chair of the Great Lakes Dredging Team, Clark worked to find uses for dredged sediment from the harbors that was filling up disposal facilities at a time when the Army Corps of Engineers said they would not be building any new facilities.

“It was a wicked problem. The shipping industry had to have their channels dredged and the corps could dredge them, but we had to come up with ways to deal with the material,” Clark said.

He and his partners found ways, and now demand for the material for use in building projects and habitat restoration sites exceeds supply.

“Gene is committed to developing the science needed to deal with many challenges facing the shipping industry,” said Jim Sharrow, retired director of port planning and resiliency for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “Through his involvement and leadership within the Great Lakes Dredging Team, the successful beneficial reuse of dredged material in the harbor has become the standard for other projects around the Great Lakes.”

Other Partners Speak

As for the sticky problem, Mike Friis, program manager with the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, has something to say about that. “Gene’s always been very helpful in the evaluations of our public access grants. I knew that if there was ever a particularly sticky situation a community was facing related to coastal engineering, I could count on Gene to come and visit.”

Friis especially appreciated seeing solutions to problems come out of these community conversations. “Having a grant application come from a community and reviewing it with Gene, and then eventually seeing the project through – that’s just great. His legacy will live throughout the state. Whether it’s a planning exercise or brick and mortar, he’s been a great resource.”

Bonnie Matuseski, a homeowner on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, provides a prime example of Clark’s talents. She consulted with him when her neighbor built a large dock that seemed to be eroding her shoreline.

“I went to Gene and he gave me direction. He taught me how to train my eye. He didn’t direct me, but he said, ‘Tell me what you see. Tell me what the changes are. Where’s the cobble? Where’s the erosion? Mark it, measure it, look for it, paddle it.’ I had to do the work, but he helped me understand what I was looking for and what I was seeing,” Matuseski said.

In the end, the neighbor rebuilt their dock in a style more suitable for sand conditions in the bay.

She had Clark out to the island recently to lecture on lake water levels. He spoke to a packed room and later consulted with over a dozen property owners who had questions and coastal property problems.

“Although Gene’s very smart and understands things from a technical aspect, he can communicate to everyone, from a dock builder to a landowner to a DNR officer – transcending the law, the politics and the science,” Matuseski said. “It’s just been a breath of fresh air to work with him. I have an extraordinarily high regard for him and it’s truly been a pleasure to know him.”

In Summation

Ever the team player, Clark summed up his career with this: “Of the many projects I’ve worked on, the ones I feel best about were ones that were collaborative efforts with other partners. It was never just my work alone. That’s what I’ll always remember as one of the best things about this position.”

Clark’s work ethic and efforts earned him a 2015 staff excellence award from the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents. It also earned him the appreciation of Wisconsin Sea Grant Director Jim Hurley.

“Gene is the model of what science outreach is all about,” Hurley said. “He can deliver highly technical scientific principles to a broad range of stakeholders, and he delivers information in a way that makes you feel like you’ve been a longtime friend. The term ‘role model’ may be a bit overused, but it never is in Gene’s case. He understands and feels the needs, and he offers solutions. Wisconsin Sea Grant is proud to have had Gene work with us for 15 years.”

Clark plans to work on some pet projects during his retirement, but does not plan to form his own engineering consulting firm. He and his wife plan to downsize and move closer to relatives.