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Talk Humboldt: Hydraulic Engineer Antonio Llanos

Humboldt has plenty of creeks, streams, and drainages. And every time you drive over one, someone had to figure out how to get the water past it so that the road you're on stays put.

"Engineers are good at efficiency, and a culvert is a very efficient way to move water under a road," Antonio Llanos says with a wink. And while a given solution might have seemed smart at the time, bygone engineers didn't always prioritize ecology. Consequently, our infrastructure often prevents fish from swimming upstream to their spawng grounds. "A culvert is basically a metal pipe that's under the road. Flow can be really fast in a culvert. It can be too shallow for fish to migrate." For decades, Llanos and his colleagues at Michael Love & Associates have revisited some of those "efficient" solutions with the goal of engineering new solutions that allow for habitat restoration.

In this episode, Llanos tells Keith Flamer and Tom Jackson about why some solutions seem shortsighted in hindsight, restoring a fish habitat in the Eel River watershed, and how to get kids intersted in engineering.


Tom Jackson: Hi, I'm Tom Jackson, president of Cal Poly Humboldt, with my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Keith Flamer, president of the College of Redwoods. Good to see you, Keith.

Keith Flamer: Good to see you, too, Tom.

Tom Jackson: Guess who we are here with today? A hydrology engineer, Antonio Llanos, project engineer at Michael Love and Associates. Good to see you, Antonio.

Antonio Llanos: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Tom Jackson: What's a hydrology engineer?

Antonio Llanos: Well, hydrology is the study of water on the landscape and how water moves through the landscape. So that can be including water supply and where we get our drinking water. And it's also the environmental component of our water systems and the streams. And as an engineer, our focus is more hydraulic and hydrology. We are applying that to stream restoration and to engineering practice.

So by trade, I'm a civil engineer. My specialty is working within water systems and stream restoration.

Tom Jackson: This must be a hydrology engineer's Mecca.

Antonio Llanos: Yes, it is indeed, right in prime salmon habitat. And we've been working for a lot of years to restore salmonid habitat.

Keith Flamer: I was talking to a few students yesterday about the change in our climate. So what's really happening and what do you think the solutions should be?

Antonio Llanos: That's a good question. The way we interact with that, and the way it affects our line of work is, we have to account for impacts to the frequency of storms and the magnitude of storms. How big of a flow are rivers going to see? We've got a century of records that gives us an idea of how rivers react to storms.

Well, that's changing and we have to adjust accordingly. So how we size a culvert or a bridge or a waterway depends on our previous predictions of water flow, which is changing. And so we have to generally size larger now.

Tom Jackson: We certainly are in a time where we are removing dams.

Antonio Llanos: Yes.

Tom Jackson: Can you talk a little bit about that impact in the work that you do?

Antonio Llanos: Yeah, we've done a little bit of that. It's fairly small, the kind of dams we've worked on. You know, people think of dams as the Hoover Dam, the Klamath Dam, but there's thousands of small dams all across the country, you know, six feet or higher. That's enough to create an impediment to fish passage and to block habitat. So we're definitely in an age of removing that type of infrastructure and looking for different solutions.

Tom Jackson: What would your typical day be like? You wake up, you go into the office…

Antonio Llanos: It's a pretty standard office job. I write a lot of reports and do a lot of analysis, make maps and develop construction plans. But there is a component, maybe 20% or so of my time, when I'm out in the field. We do a lot of surveying and monitoring, and then taking that back to the office and doing analysis and design.

Keith Flamer: I also heard tell that you're a ‘fish guy’ and I don't know what that means, so could you explain that?

Antonio Llanos: Yeah. So the aspect of fish, the habitat that we're benefiting with our work is is for coho, salmon, steelhead.

There's a lot of impediments to that around our infrastructure. Any time a road crosses a stream, there is a bridge or a culvert placed there to allow that water flow under the road.

And historically, that was done very efficiently. Engineers are good at efficiency and a culvert is a very efficient way to move water under a road. A culvert is basically a metal pipe that's under the road flow can be really fast in a culvert. It can be too shallow for fish to migrate. It constricts the flow of wood and sediment and the natural process of a stream.

So our goal is to kind of replace that and open that up. So the fish aspect of it is really what drives it. But we really look at sort of more of a holistic approach of if we can restore the whole system, the fish benefit, but so do all the other aquatic organisms.

Keith Flamer: So what's a project that you've worked on?

Antonio Llanos: One that we did a few years ago that was pretty big and exciting was on the Eel River. There's an old 100 year-old railway along there. And one of the parts of building that railway when they blasted a tunnel is, they filled in the mouth of the creek. And it sat that way for a hundred years. So a whole 20-mile watershed was blocked off from any kind of access to the habitat upstream.

And so we worked with an organization called California Trout, and we worked at removing all of that fill and restoring the channel back to its original location and function, basically opening that habitat up for the first time in a hundred years to spawning salmon. So that's a typical project of barrier removal - removing some impediment in the way.

Keith Flamer: As an engineer, seeing all the problems that you have to correct. If you were going to start over, how would you do things? How would you lay it out?

Antonio Llanos: [Laughs] That's a big question. I don't know. I don't know if I'm qualified to answer that.

Keith Flamer: Yes, you are. Because you're an engineer. [Laughter].

Antonio Llanos: I would say that none of these things -and I appreciate that- none of these things happen alone.

You know, any of these things, a design of a city, design of a… there's there's a group involved. And even within our projects, any decisions that get made are usually made collaboratively. There's trail councils, city councils, housing advocates, historical advocates. All of these feed into how we design our infrastructure.

But as far as the short sightedness of it, I don't know. That's really hard. When we build something, we we kind of anticipate that we're going to use it for 30-50 years. And then by that time, it seems like it was a short-sighted decision. But at the time it was usually the most useful idea that we had, and the one that everybody agreed on.

If you want to look at a local examples, the Eureka Wastewater Treatment System and the Arcata Wastewater Treatment system are very different systems. That's an example of seeing a different way of dealing with the problem of our wastewater and finding a more natural solution for that. Mimicking that natural concept, I think, is where I would go with it if I got to start over.

Tom Jackson: Closing question: How can we and you inspire more students to go into this field, your field, and what can two campuses do to help?

Antonio Llanos: Another great question. I don't know, to be honest, if it's hard to get them interested. I always advocate when I can for the sciences and engineering. You know, there are some kids that just seem to have an aptitude for that. Having good professors is always helpful because they provide the inspiration. That's a big question - how to attract more kids into science.

It's very lucrative. I mean, it's a good career. I mean, there's always that. It is a good time to become an engineer and there's a lot of demand. Getting back to the questions about climate change, there's a lot of solutions that need to happen, and a lot of them are social, but a lot of them are technical. The infrastructure money that's being provided by the federal government to repair our bridges and our roads and develop our water systems and wastewater treatment plants… all of that is generally designed by engineers.

I think for me, the discovery of science and the challenge around it and the problem solving and the analytical and math skills I find really appealing.

And I think there are a lot of students and kids who are attracted to that, too. And it's really about developing that and making them feel like there's a place for them.

Tom Jackson: Antonio, thank you for your time today and your insights into the work of hydrology and engineering. Appreciate it very much.

Keith Flamer: I learned a lot from you today. Thank you.

Antonio Llanos: And of course, thanks for your interest.

Dr. Tom Jackson, Jr. is the President of Cal Poly Humboldt. A first-generation college graduate, Jackson is also a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, Army National Guard, Texas State Guard, and Indiana Guard Reserve. He holds an Ed.D in Educational Leadership from the University of La Verne.
Dr. Keith Snow-Flamer has been President of the College of the Redwoods since 2015. Dr. Snow-Flamer holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Gonzaga University.