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Time to Fish in Streams instead of Measuring, Modeling and Fighting their Floods

Published May 16, 2016

He often jokes that he has similarities with Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” but instead of talking enthusiastically about theoretical string theory and trains, Mark Nelson, Plan Formulator/Project Manager in the Omaha District Planning Branch, loves hydrology and weather. As Mark prepares to retire after almost 29 years with the Corps, a look back at his career path shows just how he was able to work on those things he loved to do while adding value to the Nation.

After completing his Bachelor’s in Civil Engineering and his Master’s in Agricultural Engineering from the University of Nebraska System in the late 70s, Mark recalls how he thought the Corps of Engineers would be a great place to work; however, a federal hiring freeze at the time prevented him from accepting a job offer with the Corps. He instead went to work for the State of Nebraska’s Department of Water Resources as the Manager of the State Stream Gauging Program. Part of his first six months on the job were spent outdoors taking ice measurements in streams throughout Nebraska, during one of the coldest winters on record. This was also during the 1979 Energy Crisis when President Jimmy Carter ordered all thermostats in government buildings be set no higher than 65 degrees. Mark remembers how he often had to wear his field clothes into the office to work stream flow records that winter because the thermostat was set at a constant 55 degrees. “I plan to fish with my kids when I retire however those plans will most definitely not include ice fishing,” jokes Mark.

Over the seven years that Mark worked as the Chief of Stream Gauging, he visited all 93 counties in Nebraska and gained valuable experience in designing water measurement structures and gauging stations for stream channels. Stream gauge stations are important for several reasons. They provide reliable, up-to-date depth and flow data which can be used during flood forecasting to increase warning time and help prevent life loss and property damage. Accurate stream gauge data can also help engineers design appropriately-sized structures, like bridges and drainage systems, to withstand specific flooding events (such as the 50-year or 100-year flood event).

In addition to his stream gauge work, Mark spent a year designing roads and highway drainage structures for the Nebraska Department of Roads. This combined experience served him well as the hiring freeze lifted and he began working for the Omaha District’s Hydrologic Engineering Branch as a Hydraulic Engineer in the Hydrology Section in 1987.

As a Hydraulic Engineer, Mark used various hydraulic modeling tools to help design flood protection measures such as levees for communities and interior drainage structures for military installations throughout the Omaha District’s footprint. Mark also spent part of his work day fulfilling a dream come true as the District Meteorologist assisting Water Control in managing the Tributary Reservoirs.

Mark remembers loving weather since he was a kid and always wondered what caused tornados and other big storms. As the District Meteorologist, he worked to improve Missouri River main stem and tributary project weather stations that would support real-time data collection of inflows into the reservoirs. This information contributed to the District’s ability to make informed reservoir operation decisions.

Mark had only been the District Meteorologist, and a Corps employee, for less than a year when a unique experience tested his knowledge of weather. On a hot and muggy Friday afternoon, July 15, 1988, Mark and his colleagues in the ‘Hydro’ Branch tracked a dangerous storm as it made its way from Grand Island to Omaha. He knew something big was brewing as he poured over radar and wind gauge data. That something big ended up being a tornado that touched down and caused millions of dollars of damage in Omaha and Council Bluffs.

Mark spent 15 years in the Hydrologic Engineering Branch before moving to the Planning Branch to become a Plan Formulator/Project Manager. When asked about his proudest accomplishment in the Hydrologic Engineering Branch, he talked about the low-cost, low-tech flood warning system he designed, and ultimately had patented, for small, cash-strapped communities. Mark and his team members from Water Control built the first prototype largely using parts from local stores and installed it along Pebble Creek in Scribner, Nebraska. 

The system was designed so that as water rose up in the stilling well, float switches at various stages would trigger an alarm at each stage which would in turn automatically dial the emergency telephone numbers of designated city employees. Employees would receive a pre-recorded message at each stage letting them know that the stream had reached a certain stage and to note the time. City emergency managers could then reference paper look-up tables created by the Corps from hydrologic models to determine how long it might take the stream to reach flood stage. This information allowed communities to receive ample warning time to begin emergency preparations in the event of flooding.

Mark’s system proved that bigger, more expensive and more technologically sophisticated isn’t always better. He listened to the needs of the community and in the end, delivered a simple, inexpensive solution that, according to former Scribner City Utility Supervisor Gordon Everet, provided peace of mind for the community which had been hit by floods several times in the past.

During his years in the Hydro Branch, Mark approached every project in the same way that he did the Scribner flood warning system project – always having the community’s best interest at heart. According to John Remus, Chief of Hydrologic Engineering Branch, "No matter what the scope of the project was, Mark never lost sight of the people we were trying to help. The process was never the most important thing." His desire to help the people of a community was never more apparent than while serving in the Planning Branch as the Project Manager/Plan Formulator for the Section 205 Flood Risk Management Study for Schuyler, Nebraska.

This largely Hispanic community, located a little over an hour west of Omaha, had been hit by numerous floods from Shell Creek on the northeast and the Platte River on the south. Throughout the study process and resulting construction of a multi-million dollar levee, Mark remained heavily engaged with the city of Schuyler, the cost-share sponsor, and worked hard to include the roughly 60-percent Hispanic population in the public involvement process. Using his basic Spanish-language skills, he prepared his scoping presentations, along with other public meeting materials, in Spanish as well as English. The training he received in the National Environmental Policy Act along with the daughter whom he and his wife had adopted from Guatemala in 2003, really solidified for him the importance of including minority communities in the federal decision process.

In addition to his efforts on water resource studies while in the Planning Branch, Mark lead several Agency Technical Review teams to support highly visible projects including the Fargo-Moorhead Metro Diversion Project and the Missouri River R613-616 Levee Modification Project. Both of these projects required him to successfully collaborate with team members from other Districts around the country and local sponsors including the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District in Nebraska. He also volunteered for many special assignments including supervising debris cleanup in Alabama after Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as well as a detail in Pierre/Ft. Pierre in South Dakota to monitor emergency levee construction and perform levee inspections during the 2011 Missouri River flood.

Mark has been a true public servant to Nebraska and the Nation for over 37 years. Those who work closely with him in the Planning Branch will miss his technical prowess, his Sheldon-like humor, and his daily weather reports. Mark’s retirement becomes effective May 31, 2016, and his future plans include taking care of his kids, his grandkids, and maybe a few fishing trips.