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Protecting watersheds and coastal settings

Meet Murat Utku

Murat Utku, PhD, PE

Murat Utku joined OBG in July, bringing leadership in protecting, sustaining, and managing natural features, facilities, and infrastructure in watersheds and coastal settings. His specialized expertise spans resiliency; climate change; ecosystem restoration and mitigation; hydraulic/coastal engineering; river, estuarine, and coastal sediment and pollutant transport processes; dredging; flood damage reduction; and geotechnical investigation. 

Murat holds a PhD in civil/coastal engineering, is a certified Diplomate in Coastal Engineering, serves as a Governing Board Member for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Coasts, Oceans, Ports, and Rivers Institute, and frequently presents in the field of coastal engineering at environmental conferences across the U.S.

Q: You have worked in the coastal engineering industry for nearly 25 years as an expert and researcher on projects across the U.S. How has the management of watershed and coastal environments evolved over the years?

A: The most recent evolvement is the recognition and need to be resilient. Looking back on the history of watershed/coastal environments, one of the most important impacts to these areas began with the need to create land for emerging industries at the start of the century. As decades passed, we began to realize the resulting environmental impacts on watershed/coastal environments and as a result, moved into a period of enhancing our environment through restoration efforts. 

Following Hurricane Sandy in particular, we realized just how vulnerable communities are to storms and natural disasters. Impacts of such storms are realized in not only our physical infrastructure, but also how our social infrastructure plays a significant role in recovery and resiliency. Public outreach and community input have therefore become critical to the management of watershed/coastal environments.

It’s also important to mention climate change and its impacts on the coastal engineering field. Projects in our watershed/coastal environment need to consider climate change, specifically for inclusion in future planning. More frequently occurring extreme weather events—which include changing sea levels and increasing rainfall intensity—are the new driver forcing engineers and public officials to identify effective mechanisms for enhancing transportation, power, and communication system resilience.

Q: In your opinion, what are the most pressing challenges facing civil engineers today related to watershed and coastal settings?

A: Understanding the challenges of watershed/coastal environments and creating adaptive solutions is key. In our ever-changing world, we must be agile and respond to needs while keeping regulations satisfied, addressing community needs, and remaining cost-effective. There are many cases where decisions are driven regardless of available technologies, infrastructure, or political agenda when many stakeholders are involved. It’s all about finding that “balance”—this balance, together with adaptive-driven response and creating trust between project stakeholders and the community, is key to the recovery process in watershed/coastal areas.

Q: Climate change has added to the uncertainties facing decision makers in the public and private sectors. Shifting weather patterns, changes in sea levels, and severe storm events need to be considered when planning infrastructure. In the face of such uncertainty, how do you advise planning, designing, and building infrastructure that will adapt to changing climate conditions and user needs over the next five (and the next 50) years?

A: Just as in life, there are events that make us think twice, or make us cautious for the next time. Hurricane Sandy was one of those events in coastal engineering. The combined impact of the storm’s forces was so devastating that we are still feeling the impacts today.

While it’s known that sea levels are rising, uncertainty in our current knowledge of projections is still varying. Many entities are struggling to find the right answer for future planning. As a result, there is a great need to consider existing guidance and regulations, synthesize them for a specific case, and find the right solution for the planning horizon of that specific entity.

In addition, climate change includes many different elements (e.g., increasing intensity of storms, rainfall, and heat), with each element having a potential impact to a project or a client. I have worked on several cases where we have looked at the needs of the project, vulnerability of the location, and social architecture of the region and came up with a specific recommendation for a client. I suggest a similar methodology on a case-by-case basis with sound engineering, science, and professional judgment.

Q: As a thought leader in coastal engineering, how do you see innovation being brought into projects, and how to do navigate the myriad of technologies, approaches, and software available?

A: It is always important to take advantage of an innovative culture in forward-moving markets to respond to client needs. Ever-advancing technologic tools may not be the answer themselves, but they help us to make critical decisions every day. A good example of this in the coastal engineering field is modeling. Over recent years, we have made significant strides in developing, using, and making predictions using modeling. 

Q: On a personal note, why did you decide to join OBG? 

A: What drew me to OBG was its focus on both innovation and thought leadership, and how the company cultivates the vast knowledge of its experts, while using the most recent trends in the industry and relevant research, to solve client challenges. This innovative culture, along with OBG’s brand experience and integrated services, provides its people an avenue to respond to client needs, while being socially responsible and cost-effective. There is a well-established professionalism and friendly culture at OBG, and I am excited to be a part of this team and to contribute my expertise to its success.

Contact Murat Utku at Murat.Utku@obg.com