September 7, 2007

Engineering dean moderates international levee symposium

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College of Engineering and Computer Science Dean Emir Jose Macari

When Dean Emir Jose Macari was asked to participate in an international symposium to discuss whether vegetation on levees should be removed, he thought his role would be to simply keep the topic on discussion. He had no idea one of his primary chores would be peacemaker.

Macari, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, moderated what turned out to be a very heated conference as experts and interested parties from around the world met in Sacramento Aug. 28 and 29 to discuss whether vegetation helps or hurts the stability of levees.

The conference was set up by the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Water Resources and the State of California Reclamation Board after the Army Corps of Engineers released a “white paper” in April mandating vegetation be removed from levees nationwide.

“They felt that vegetation could be a threat to stability of the levees,” says Macari, “and were developing a national policy calling for the removal of all vegetation from levees nationwide. States out of compliance with their policy could lose federal funding to maintain the levees.”

The white paper created a storm of protests with experts on either side convinced their argument was most sound. The symposium was set up to allow opponents and proponents of the plan to present their case. More than 600 people from California and western states participated.

“I was very impressed to see so many Sacramento State alumni holding some of the highest positions in engineering through out California,” he says.

The dean, who is a geotechnical engineer with expertise in levee design and repairs, was asked to participate in the symposium by professors from the

University of California at Berkeley who had worked with him on levee failures in Louisiana as a result of hurricane Katrina.

“I wanted to show what Sacramento State could bring to the table, but unfortunately, by the time I became involved, the conference agenda had been set,” Macari says. “But, because of my background, they asked if I could moderate.”

Macari says other than the agenda, he did not know what to expect at the conference. “I thought it would just be a static moderation -- introduce the speaker, say ‘thank you very much,’ and introduce the next person. But as the meeting went on, someone would come over and ask, ‘How do you think it’s going so far? Are we convincing them?’ Then someone else would come along, ask the same question and try to convince me of their point of view.”

There is a school of thought that the levees are being undermined by tree roots and animals burrowing into the levee, says Macari. The other school of thought is that the levees are being strengthened by the root systems and that burrowing animals are not drawn by the vegetation but by the aquatic environment. Both sides were passionate in their debate, he said.

“I did see myself as a peacemaker bringing different constituencies to the table to have a dialogue,” Macari says. “My job was to keep everything focused on the topic and the science behind it and not have people attacking each other. Yes, everybody had an agenda, but there are pros and cons for each side.”

In the end, the Army Corps of Engineers stated the white paper was only a draft and agreed that it needed to seek community input and include local concerns in future policies.

“They certainly grabbed the attention of a lot of people, though,” Macari says.

As for being the moderator instead of a participant, Macari says it really worked out to his benefit.

“It turned out I learned a lot more by moderating than by sitting in the audience,” he said. “But, the goal was to see if we instituted positive change. If we did, I will look back on it and say it was good. If not, I will look back on it and say, ‘well, it was fun, but we wasted our time.’”

The symposium was also a bit of a surprise reunion for Macari. Four former students from institutions he taught at -- Georgia Tech, Louisiana State University and the University of Puerto Rico -- were participants in the meeting.

“There is no bigger reward for an educator than to see his or her students engaged in important issues that affect our country and for them to use their technical and scientific knowledge for the good of society,” says Macari.

For more information about the levees and issues regarding vegetation, contact Macari at (916) 278-6127. For media assistance, contact the Sacramento State Public Affairs office at (916) 278-6156.