Civil engineers help Corps of Engineers restore endangered fish habitat
Fish may live in schools, but engineering is the subject that could save one of their endangered species.
Despite being called one of nature’s “ugliest fish,” the increasingly rare pallid sturgeon is getting help to restore its habitat in the Missouri River. To evaluate progress for this work, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commissioned a multi-criteria assessment tool from environmental engineers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The UNL research quantifies factors including water depth, temperature and turbidity (suspended sediment) to help the Corps determine what matters most in river conditions to boost the breeding chances of the ghostly four-foot fish, which can live nearly a century. Much of the pallid sturgeon's preferred habitat was altered with commercial use of the river during the 20th century.
John Stansbury and Istvan Bogardi, professors of civil engineering in Omaha and Lincoln, worked with former graduate student Jennifer Gitt on the formula addressing the complex factors of the pallid sturgeon environment. Bogardi had developed a multi-criteria decision-making (MCDM) tool, called composite programming, in the 1980s.
The multi-criteria tool was originally proposed to help manage the dams on the Missouri River, Stansbury said. However, the Corps wanted to see if the tool could help evaluate their progress with the sturgeon habitat restoration.
Stansbury, who studied biology prior to his doctorate in engineering, adapted the tool with a conceptual model that set habitat aspects as criteria. Gitt then collected data and processed the tool’s components; her work included meeting with sturgeon habitat experts and compiling reports, to validate the result they call a Multi-Criteria Assessment (MCA) for sturgeon habitat restoration.
Gitt, who grew up in Axtell, now works for the sediment and channels stabilization section in the hydro branch at the Corps’ Omaha district, focusing on maintenance and issues prevention for channelized parts of the Missouri. Her UNL project familiarized her with partners in this work, including Nebraska Game & Parks, and Gitt enjoys being able to continue to observe different options and ideas that arise for the river. From her undergraduate coursework in civil engineering to her master’s studies in environmental engineering, Gitt appreciated having good learning opportunities. Although the multi-criteria work was challenging, she said it felt good to figure out and connect the habitat factors for worthwhile results, including a successful thesis.
For a budgeted amount of $113,835, the Corps gained from this UNL research a focused way to assess the quality of the habitat improvement as restoration activities proceed—a dashboard to help guide and monitor progress while the pallid sturgeon population is tracked.