The city of Arcata produces more than two million gallons of sewage per day — there is nothing out of the ordinary about that statistic; it’s in line with the amount of sewage generated by cities of similar size.
The difference between Arcata and those other similarly sized cities is the manner in which the sewage is treated. The procedure the city currently uses to process its wastewater didn’t exist 50 years ago. It was the engineering skill of two men that led to an innovative wastewater treatment system that not only handles the city’s sewage but also provides a wildlife sanctuary that is one of the city’s most popular attractions.
The development of the Arcata Marsh as an integral part of wastewater treatment in Arcata was the primary focus of two professors at Humboldt State University, George Allen and Robert Gearheart, who developed a process that uses what was a former salt marsh as a means to treat sewage that is then discharged into Humboldt Bay.
On May 7, Gearheart, who you can still find working at the marsh on a daily basis, will be honored by the Environmental Law Institute at its annual awards dinner in Washington, D.C.
Gearheart will receive the Institute’s award for scientific research. It was two former students of his at HSU, Eileen Cashman and Brad Finney, currently professors in the school’s Environmental ResourcesEngineering Department program, who nominated him for the award.
“I would just say his 40-plus year career in which he has been dedicated to understanding wetlands systems in a very applied way,” Cashman said when describing why she and Finney nominated Gearheart. “He’s just inspiring in his commitment to sustainability and the scientific approach to understanding water systems. He brings a blend of skills — biologist, engineer, teacher — and hundreds of students have been impacted and inspired by what he’s done.”
The development of the marsh as a wastewater treatment plant was a result of the Clean Water Act signed into law in 1972, which made available millions of dollars of federal funds for research into clean water projects and, according to Gearheart, it put him on the road to where he is now.
“In a way, I’m a child of the Clean Water Act,” said Gearheart who earned bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and biology, and then got his master’s and Ph.D. at Oklahoma University. “It opened up a lot of opportunities for engineers to get actively involved in water quality. I found a niche that didn’t exist earlier with my background in biology and it was work that was done in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s where they found wastewater that went into a natural marsh proved to be treated effectively and I thought, ‘What if I could build a system similar to the natural marsh?’”
Gearheart’s work has been replicated across the globe and has been used for the development of wastewater systems in Asia, Africa and North America. It was the ground-breaking nature of his work that gained him so many admirers.
“Dr. Gearheart is a well-respected biologist, researcher, and engineer in his field. His peers in Humboldt State University’s environmental resources engineering program recognized his tremendous work and nominated him for this award,” said Azi Akpan, program manager of the National Wetlands Awards at ELI. “Despite his undeniable contributions and exceptional career, he was absolutely astonished and humbled when I told him he received the Science Research Award. We are very excited to have the opportunity to honor him during this special anniversary year of the National Wetlands Awards.”
In addition to his professional teaching duties, Gearheart dedicated countless volunteer hours to the development of the project and it was his generosity both as a teacher and a scientist that impacted so many young minds over his career.
“Bob has been working on (full-scale) constructed wetlands for 40-plus years,” wrote Finney, who was mentioned by Gearheart as someone who was closely involved in the development of the marsh. “He has volunteered well over 20,000 hours of his time to design constructed wetlands, monitor their performance, perform research investigations to better understand the complex physical and biological processes that govern the impact wetlands have on water quality, and to help educate engineers, planners, environmental scientists, and decision makers on the multiple beneficial uses of constructed wetland. However, Bob is not one to blow his own horn, so for all of this effort, he has received little recognition from the professional community. I have been honored to be able to learn from and work with Bob for many years, and nominating him for this award was a way to see that he finally gets the recognition that he deserves.”
The wastewater treatment system went online in 1985 and it was sparked by a plan to construct a traditional water treatment facility that would have served Arcata, Eureka and McKinleyville until a former Arcata City Public Works Director, Frank Klopp, who, alarmed at the growing costs associated with the traditional wastewater treatment facility, urged city leaders to break from the deal and develop a system of their own.
City officials would battle long and hard with state agencies to get the marsh project going and when it was finally approved for a pilot project in 1981 it didn’t take long for Gearheart and the other scientists to be proved correct.
“The pilot project marked the beginning of Bob’s efforts for the city of Arcata that continue to this day,” Finney wrote. “Bob has an educational background in both biological sciences and engineering which allowed him to see the layered benefits of incorporating constructed wetlands into a wastewater treatment system. A wetland system is relatively easy to construct and maintain, and requires far less energy input compared to more conventional wastewater treatment processes.”
The cost benefits were immediately apparent to Arcata officials and it’s estimated the construction of the wetlands project saved the city about $3 million they would have spent on the traditional plant. Those savings are still being realized today because so much of the infrastructure is natural.
“It really has broadened the horizon in terms of the role of government policies being implemented that recognize wastewater as a resource and that’s a big thing because, in many areas, it’s your most reliable water source if treated properly,” said Gearheart who mentioned projects done in Egypt, Mexico and Central America. “Connecting the dots with what we are doing in Arcata with other places promotes beneficial uses of marshes. It’s very important because it’s a local source of water and the land use can be focused on education. Before it was just pipes running into the ocean. I think the basic principle is it keeps construction and maintenance costs low. The only requirement is that it needs space.”
For Cashman, when you combine the excellent engineer with the excellent man you get someone worthy of being recognized for their excellence.
“He’s been a pioneer and really inspirational in terms of trying to understand the science and how we communicate that science to other people,” Cashman said. “He’s worked on hundreds of systems across the world and when we put together the nomination package I asked him to list all the projects he’s worked on and it was thousands of wetlands. He’s such a good guy, such a nice, generous, sincere person and he’s very humble. He was here early on when the program first started. He’s one of the reasons we are a leader in natural treatment systems. He’s really the grandfather; he’s the one who started it all.”
Dan Squier can be reached at 707-441-0528.