Godfather of Constructed Wetlands Awarded for His Achievements

Robert Gearheart recently won an award from the Environmental Law Institute recognizing his work in establishing and guiding the Arcata Marsh Research Institute in Arcata, California

Robert Gearheart
Robert Gearheart

You may not have heard the name Robert Gearheart, but it’s not for lack of achievement. He’s been too busy providing data via groundbreaking research and creating new effluent wetlands to gain recognition the way a traditional academic might.

“I’ve been in the business a long time,” says Brad Finney, a former student of Gearheart’s and one of the Humboldt State (California) University faculty members that nominated him. “He is by far the most intellectually generous scientist. I mean, he throws out ideas nonstop. He’s an idea guy, and he doesn’t protect them. He wants people to try stuff out, and he’s been so generous with his time, his intellectual curiosity, and he’s so good in working with other people.”

Eileen Cashman is another former student turned colleague that helped submit the nomination. “He’s published plenty, but not in the traditional academic focus of just publishing as many papers as possible,” Cashman says. “That’s not how he did it — he did it with a very practically applied and generous approach, where he shared his knowledge with everybody, and he mentored students.”

Finney agrees, saying it’s primarily because he’s simply too busy doing the work. “What’s important to him is the discovery process, and doing stuff, and because of that, he hasn’t received nearly the recognition that he deserves for his work.”

A lifelong commitment

Gearheart — a retired emeritus professor and part-time instructor at HSU — was awarded by the Environmental Law Institute for excellence in scientific research within the organization’s National Wetlands Awards. Other award categories included business leadership, conservation and restoration, education and outreach. Gearheart was chosen for his work in establishing and guiding the Arcata Marsh Research Institute in Arcata, California.

Alongside, or perhaps underlying, his commitment to beneficial reuse of wastewater effluent is a broader affinity for engineered natural treatment systems.

“He’s made this his life focus, really, understanding engineered natural treatment systems, and then trying to communicate that in terms of how we can utilize natural systems to treat our wastewater and benefit from them. His dedication is inspirational,” Cashman says. “One other thing that I think is pretty unique about him is that he’s combined engineering and biology, and ecology. He has a special kind of gift for bringing in nontraditional engineering aspects into wastewater treatment.”

In fact, constructed wetlands bear his mark across the globe, from the West Coast to rural Africa, through his work with nongovernmental organizations over the years.

“He did a lot of work for a long time, and to some extent still dabbles in this, with appropriate technology in developing countries. That includes sanitation issues, how do you bring drinking water, wastewater sanitation, and even public health issues, into places around the world. He’s worked in Africa, some parts of Asia, and the Pacific — and he’s really connected with that,” Finney says.

It’s part of his upbringing and his training, according to Finney, and he’s carried that forward. “So for him, wetlands fall in that same category. It’s a natural process that is comparatively easy to construct, it’s understandable for smaller agricultural communities, and it’s a relatively easy technology. Obviously, internally, it’s very complex — biologically, chemically; the biochemistry that’s going on in there, it’s incredibly complex — but the human operators don’t necessarily need to understand all of that to enjoy the benefits of having the system available.”

That both of his nominating colleagues were former students and that his current students — such as the recently profiled NAWT Scholarship winner, Rebecca Burke — speak so highly of him also are testaments to his contributions on an industry scale.

The larger impact of Gearheart’s story is not the contributions he’s made to constructed wetlands research, but the ongoing water treatment legacy that he has expanded over his decades-long career. He himself cites several early mentors in nurturing his passion for water quality, and now he passes on that spirit through HSU’s environmental resource engineering program, and through the student workers at the Arcata Marsh Research Institute.

“I’m kind of a child of the Clean Water Act — I’m that old,” Gearheart says jokingly. “But anyway, it came onto the horizon, and it gave opportunities for people who were not engineers to get actively involved in water quality, because of the impacts and some of the more interesting aspects of water quality, so that’s kind of how I went from biology into engineering.”

Gearheart has an undergraduate degree in biology with a master’s and Ph.D. in environmental engineering. He’s a licensed engineer and operator with experience managing a water district, and he had involvement in the manpower training programs for wastewater operators in the ’70s. His confluence of interests and fields of study gave him a particularly keen insight while developing the Arcata wetlands strategy.

“Out of all of that was my interest in appropriate technology, those kinds of technologies that are low-cost in terms of operations and energy, and that’s kind of blended with my biology training,” Gearheart says. “When I came to Humboldt, which was like 1975, the whole issue came up looking for an alternative treatment system for Arcata, and that’s how the story started, how I got to that point.”

The Arcata system

Related to the Clean Water Act, Arcata was looking for innovative ways to manage its effluent that didn’t involve ocean outfall. At that time, projects demonstrating innovative alternative technologies for beneficial reuse could reap tremendous federal funding, so Gearheart pushed for a pilot project to prove his firm belief that a constructed wetland was a perfect fit.

“Very few people appreciated the multilevel benefits that come from using land-based treatment systems, what they bring to communities,” says Finney. “It’s not just a wastewater system, it brings wildlife habitat, and it brings recreational benefits. In Arcata, our waste treatment facility is one of the most-visited public places in Humboldt County."

Finney says Gearhart saw all those opportunities right away. “He was able to convince a lot of very skeptical regulators that not only will it work as a waste system, but it’ll also provide a variety of benefits that go far beyond anything anybody had thought about in the first place.”

Robert Gearheart in front of the Arcata Marsh in 1989. (Photo Courtesy of Humboldt State University)
Robert Gearheart in front of the Arcata Marsh in 1989. (Photo Courtesy of Humboldt State University)

The Arcata Marsh Sanctuary consists of 40 acres of oxidation ponds, taking advantage of a former landfill site that sat unused for several years. The true ingenuity of the idea was that the area around Humboldt Bay was in need of wetlands — it had lost 90 percent of its natural wetlands in the 1800s.

“Each community, each site has a different opportunity,” Gearheart says. “Wetlands can exist anywhere under the right set of conditions, so it has a kind of flexibility in siting and design, which doesn’t fit into the normal approach to engineering.”

Over the years, across the wetland projects he’s been involved in, Gearheart has faced resistance borne out of skepticism. It’s hard for people to imagine a natural phenomenon like wetlands existing where now they see only dry land.

But now, not only is the effluent wetland accepted, it’s cherished.

“In the case of Arcata, one of the things that’s spun out of this is that it’s really a community project. You couldn’t take it away from them, because it’s highly used,” Gearheart says.

In addition to bringing back a number of birds and wildlife that had been driven out with the steadily eliminated natural wetlands, it has become a popular recreation area for locals, with 5 miles of trails.

“Hundreds of people a day could use it for passive recreation, environmental education, and all of the other purposes that you have for trails,” Gearheart says. “It will create a research and environmental education opportunity for the community. So that’s where we are right now.”

It’s not just the community for whom Gearheart and his students are providing educational opportunities. They have also sent their data to various government organizations, with the hopes of establishing guidelines for constructed wetlands.

“Once this came online, we started generating data, so we have a very large database on how these systems work,” he says. “We got involved early on in helping the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Reclamation develop design criteria for the use of constructed wetlands.”

As Finney and Cashman say, it’s clear that Gearheart’s focus is on proliferating knowledge, not garnering praise.

“He’s so humble, he would never say anything like this about himself,” Cashman says. “But he really deserved recognition for something of real significance that he did — something out of the true spirit of scientific curiosity and generosity, of trying to make things better.”


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