A hand rests the tip of a pen on a large map. Design plans overlay maps of Tybee Island.

Affiliates collaborate on Tybee Island natural infrastructure plan

Tybee Island combines human ingenuity with natural resilience in combatting sea level rise

By Sarah Buckleitner

We don’t usually associate sunshine and blue skies with the sort of flooding that can shut down roads and creep into homes. But as sea level rise creeps further inland, coastal communities face a growing number of “sunny day” floods.

While many coastal communities hunker behind seawalls and elaborate levee systems to protect them from the elements, Tybee Island is working with UGA’s Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems and Thomas & Hutton, the city’s engineering firm, to create a plan that combines natural resilience with human ingenuity through the use of green infrastructure.

Photo of flooding on Tybee Island, by Emily Kenworthy, University of Georgia, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant

The proposed plan is to attack the problem by building features on the island and surrounding shoreline and marsh that will slow the flow of water toward the island and improve the community’s ability to handle getting its feet wet.

“We have multiple features, and they’re broken into two groups:  shoreline or marsh features and features on the island,” explained Dr. Félix Santiago-Collazo, assistant professor in the College of Engineering. Santiago-Collazo oversees coordinating activities from UGA’s engineering side of the project.

“The biggest feature is what we’ve been calling a ‘marsh barrier,’ because it’s meant to help expand the marsh so that it can better protect the bayside of the island. The marsh grass itself protects the island from surges because it slows the water’s movement. And if you take energy out of the water from that storm surge, then it won’t penetrate as far inland.”

On the island, the design team has focused on a culvert enhancement project, which is proposed to be installed on Sixth Street. This design centers on the installation of a “box culvert”— two large rectangular openings that are roughly 8 by 10 feet wide—a vast improvement over the restricting, two 30-inch diameter pipes that currently carries water.

The team overlays design ideas with maps of the island. Photo by Emily Kenworthy, University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant

“This was one of our main priorities to tackle because it’s a quick fix and you get a lot from it. For example, we found that if we instead install a box culvert—then the flow improves greatly, which alleviates flooding. Another side benefit of the box culvert is that it provides a bigger space for wildlife to migrate, which was also a component of all this,” said Santiago-Collazo. ‘

If implemented, these two projects would work in conjunction to help keep the town dry. The marsh barrier will provide a slope where the marsh can migrate to higher ground in response to rising seas, while the culvert will help establish more natural flows in the marsh. Simultaneously, the researchers also recommend raising the height of Venetian Drive, so that it acts as a subtle barrier between the houses beyond and the ocean.

“If we install the marsh barrier, then we’ll have a place where the marsh can migrate. So you have that for the marsh, and then you’ll have a higher barrier, which will be street, which will serve to help stop flooding. And then you have your houses on the back end. The project will have the double purpose of providing room for the marsh to migrate while protecting the island, not to mention increased opportunities for recreation and tourism in the greenspaces that will be created, which is really cool,” said Santiago-Collazo.

Healthy marshes provide a number of benefits to communities, including storm surge and flood protection, purification of toxins, and carbon sequestration, as well as places to recreate and spot the wildlife that call them home.

Dr. Clark Alexander, IRIS affiliate and Director of the UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, has focused specifically on the marsh—assessing its health, and identifying where seawalls and other hard armoring may make it impossible for it to migrate.

“What I’m focusing on in this project is the marsh and its health, including its accretion—or growth rate in relation to sea level rise. This is important to know in understanding whether the marsh is going to be drowned by rising water levels, or whether it is going to be able to migrate onto the upland–and if so, where,” Alexander explained.

The researchers are tackling this problem in a two-pronged attack: measuring how quickly the marsh is growing, and identifying where the problem areas may lie in the future.

“We’ve been mapping where the armoring is within the study area so that we’re aware of where the marsh can migrate–which is essentially where the armoring isn’t. In addition to that, we’ve been looking at marsh accumulation rates, trying to understand whether the marsh is keeping up with sea level rise,” Alexander said.

“As in other Georgia marshes, we find that accretion rates are on the order of 1-2 millimeters a year based on measurements at the Fort Pulaski tide gauge, which is not far from Tybee Island. This is far below what the marshes need to survive in the face of a sea level rise rate of 3.4 millimeters a year.  Given this difference, marshes here will need help keeping up.”

Ensuring that the marsh is in good health and has a place to migrate is essential to protecting the back side of the island.

“This research is important because the back sides of islands are much harder to protect. On the front sides of islands, we know how to build dunes and beaches for protection. But the back is just basically a low gradient slide from upland to marsh to intertidal zone to tidal creek. Protecting it is not as straightforward, and it comes with the limitations of people having built right up against the marsh edge, which is a problem,” said Alexander.

To determine just how these components can all work together in the final design, IRIS researchers developed models that simulate the flow of water and test different scenarios that could cause flooding against the green infrastructure features they’ve designed. This includes an entire system intended to improve stormwater management and create an interconnected network of greenspace throughout the island, which will provide recreational opportunities as well as habitat benefits for wildlife, including birds and pollinators.

“My job was to make a combined model that showed how the whole system worked together–including the stormwater infrastructure, improvements that Thomas & Hutton proposed, and the green stormwater infrastructure improvements that our team designed,” explained IRIS graduate student, Matt Chambers, who worked in conjunction with graduate students Daniel Buhr and Haley Selsor from the College of Engineering, as well as landscape architects Alfie Vick, Alison Smith, and Jon Calabria from the College of Environment and Design, Jill Gambill, Coastal Resilience Specialist with the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, and Craig Landry with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The team discusses ideas and plans. Pictured from left to right, Jon Calabria, Craig Landry, Emily Dolatowski, Jill Gambill and Alfie Vick. Photo by Emily Kenworthy, University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

Chambers and his colleagues combined all of the team’s plans by pulling those elements into a numerical model, and then testing them to see whether they could recreate the flooding that citizens had actually observed on the ground.

“To help ground truth this process, they showed us photo evidence of where flooding was happening and we also measured groundwater levels as they changed with tides and rain. And we tried to make it so that the model actually had flooding, or matching groundwater levels, in those places,” Chambers elaborated. “That was quite a difficult process–it took me a while to develop that model, but now we have this testbed where we can try all kinds of different green stormwater infrastructure approaches and their combinations. So we can put in living shorelines, or we can try out rainwater harvesting or we can manipulate different ways of improving the infiltration into the groundwater. We can test sensitivity to rising and fluctuating groundwater levels.”

These models have made clear how green and conventional infrastructure systems can bolster each other and give the research team a clear idea of how much water the green infrastructure can store.

“We’re able to show that our green infrastructure design boosts the function of the gray infrastructure. We were able to see that with the old system, after heavy rainfall events you’d get flooding on the street. But when we put the green infrastructure into our model, that type of flooding was greatly reduced. Green is definitely boosting gray, while also supporting wildlife and habitat, which is great,” Santiago-Collazo said.

The next step is to bring their findings to the community for review so that they can work together to settle on a final design. After that, they’ll pursue permits and funding for construction.

Over the last year, the team has gathered public input through their resident advisory board, geosurvey, where they crowdsourced information on flooding hotspots, and a survey intended to gather information on risk perceptions, experiences with flooding, priorities related to the function of infrastructure (habitat enhancement, cost, flood reduction) and the willingness to pay for these characteristics.

Alan Robertson, project manager for Tybee Island, elaborated on the importance of these outreach efforts. “While the work IRIS has done clearly identifies the importance of including these types of nature-based solutions in Tybee’s resiliency efforts, to date they are difficult to quantify and are new concepts to most people. Public outreach and education are critical in building the political will necessary to make the difficult decisions. Our IRIS partners have developed the nature-based solutions and modeled their effectiveness to help residents visualize the recommendations. Pictures, and in this case animations, do go a very long way in telling a compelling story.”

Images of the dunes and beach on frontside Tybee Island. Photo by Emily Kenworthy, University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

The team has plans to do more targeted outreach moving forward, where they will engage residents who live at the sites of proposed natural infrastructure projects.

“We’re excited to iterate with the people who stand to benefit from these changes to figure out the best options,” Santiago-Collazo said.

While Tybee Island might be the first to put together such an innovative plan for building resilience in its community, the researchers hope that it won’t be the last.

“Tybee Island is laying the blueprint for how island communities can tackle the challenges of climate change head on, in innovative and unique ways,” said Chambers. “They’re seeing the real impacts of sea level rise, and have decided to do something about it, which makes them a kind of early adopter of these resilience measures. I wouldn’t be surprised if coastal communities around the world end up looking to it as an example.”

Phillip Bumpers presents his research wearing sandals, jeans, and a white collared shirt. A screen displays the image of a stream and text. Above the screen in black and red lettering reads the words Innovation District.

University units collaborate to host Climate and Water Research Slam

Great minds don’t necessarily think alike—and the River Basin Center feels that’s valuable.  

That’s why it partnered with The Office of Sustainability and the Georgia Initiative for Climate and Society to host the Climate and Water Research Slam on May 12, 1 to 5 p.m. 

Twenty-two speakers—including lawyers, engineers, ecologists and social scientists—from organizations across the University of Georgia campus gathered to present lightning presentations in their areas of expertise. The event featured talks from students and faculty alike.   

Presenters distilled years of research into bite-sized pieces: Talks lasted five minutes, with time for a handful of questions after each. Topics ranged widely, from melting Antarctic ice sheets to economics and irrigation, to hydrosocial concerns, to the impact of policy on Georgian wetland.

“Personally, I was very excited to see this exchange of ideas between our RBC affiliates, who mainly work in freshwater and coastal systems, with colleagues working on climate-related project in other realms,” said Seth Wenger, director for science at the River Basin Center. He co-facilitated the event alongside Cory Struthers, affiliate at the Georgia Initiative and Tyra Byers, director of the Interdisciplinary Certificate in Sustainability.  

Struthers agreed with Wenger. Collaboration encouraged by interdisciplinary events is not only useful—it’s necessary.

“Cultivating community, including friendship, is so important for fostering intellectual creativity and innovative scholarship on epic challenges like climate change. Events like the Research Slam help us re-energize on these fronts,” she said.

Struthers was hired two years ago at the School of Public and International Affairs. She’s been motivated to work on climate issues and organize climate faculty ever since, and she wanted to host a networking event through the Georgia Initiative.

So she reached out to Byers. When they in turn reached out to Wenger, to ensure that the River Basin Center wasn’t hosting an overlapping event, he let them know the center was optioning a research slam.

“We decided to all join forces,” Struthers explained.

And for the three organizers, climate and water were a natural thematic fit. “That kind of cross-sectional issue space between water and hydrology and climate is so joined together. It would be hard to just study water without talking about climate,” Struthers pointed out.

The venue for the event was the newly renovated Delta Innovation Hub. Presentations were followed by a networking reception for participants to exchange ideas and to brainstorm new collaborations.  

“It was an opportunity to socialize and just get a feel for everybody’s research and personality,” said Struthers.

For those who missed that opportunity, not to worry. The organizers plan to make the research slam a recurring event. 

Ally Whiteis, wearing a black blouse and black and white checkered pants, poses with her arm around Olivia Allen, who wears a navy diamond patterned dress in front of their posters.

On Stream Warming and Food Chains: RBC Undergraduates present at UGA CURO Symposium

Olivia Allen and Ally Whiteis, undergraduate students in the Odum School of Ecology (and working with doctoral students Nathan Tomczyk and Carolyn Cummins) presented their research results at the UGA CURO symposium on April 4th.

Both students found that stream organisms and food resources changed due to streamwater warming.  Their experiments ranged from field measurements of algae in an experimentally warmed stream to laboratory studies of microbial responses to temperature. 

To learn more about this kind of research, visit the Rosemond Lab website.

Photo credit: Carolyn Cummins
Written by: Dr. Amy Rosemond

New position available: Communications Coordinator

This position will serve as public relations professional for the Odum School of Ecology (OSE) while assisting in communications for the UGA River Basin Center (RBC).

For the OSE, the employee will produce written, visual and multimedia content to tell the Odum School story, including press releases, features, and social media posts about Odum research, teaching, outreach, events, and people. The incumbent may also provide design services for the Odum School website and programs. In addition, this position provides communications support for the OSE development and alumni relations program. For this area, the employee will report to OSE’s Communications Coordinator.

For the RBC, the employee will be responsible for updating and implementing a communications plan, including a social media plan, and will manage public relations and communications for specific externally funded projects as needed. The coordinator will maintain the RBC website and oversee the creation of articles and press releases highlighting RBC projects and profiling affiliate faculty, staff, and students. The position will coordinate the biennial Georgia Water Resources Conference, the Third Wednesday symposium series, and other RBC events. For this area, the employee will report to a co-Director of RBC.

This position will oversee up to four rotating student interns who will assist with various tasks. This position will regularly interact with faculty, staff, and students among OSE and other university units. They may be called on to speak on behalf of the OSE or RBC, or projects managed by either, both internally at UGA and externally. Therefore, decisions of the position determine the effectiveness of the communications activities of both the OSE and RBC and influence the reputation and performance of both units.

Learn more about the position or apply:


Call for proposals: John Spencer Research Grants Program!

We are now accepting proposals from graduate students for the 2022 John Spencer Research Grants program!

The UGA River Basin Center announces the 2022 call for proposals for John Spencer Research Grants to graduate students. This program was initiated in 2017 with a contribution from Kathleen Amos in honor of her son, former RBC master’s student John Spencer. Ongoing funding is provided by donations to the RBC.

Small grants are available to all students affiliated with the River Basin Center. Affiliate status is open to any graduate student at the University of Georgia, including those in professional programs, as long as their research and/or interests align with the RBC mission, which is to connect water-related research at UGA with societal management and policy needs. Students can request affiliate status by emailing Seth Wenger at swenger@uga.edu. This can be done concurrent with submitting a proposal. Small grants are intended to support a student’s research activities. Projects should advance the RBC’s goal of sustainable management of aquatic resources and ecosystems, but can be in any discipline or disciplines. Funds can be used for research supplies, travel expenses associated with research, hourly wages for undergraduate research assistants and graduate stipends. Travel to conferences may be included, but conference travel funding must be limited to $1000.

Proposal Format (2 page limit, exclusive of budget and references):

Title of proposal

Applicant’s name, email address, department, degree program

Introduction, problem statement, and research question(s) to be tested. Applicants should emphasize the work to be funded by the proposal, but also explain how it fits into the broader context of their thesis, dissertation, or other project, as appropriate. Research questions should be specific and the scope should be appropriate to the scale of the project.

Research plan and methods: Be specific but concise.

Budget with justification

Budgets cannot exceed $2500. If the proposed work requires a budget greater than the limit, briefly explain what other funds will be used to complete the work.


Proposals must be accompanied by a brief (one page limit; one paragraph is sufficient) endorsement from the applicant’s advisor or other faculty sponsor of the work.

Proposals for 2022 are due April 15, 2022. Decisions will be announced 2 weeks later, and funding will be made available shortly thereafter. Funds will need to be spent by June 30, 2023, unless special arrangements are made.

Proposals should be submitted as a single PDF file to Seth Wenger at swenger@uga.edu by midnight eastern on April 15, 2022.

Proposals will be evaluated by volunteer faculty affiliates of the RBC who have no conflicts of interest with applicants. Proposals will be evaluated both on quality of the project (potential contribution of the proposed work and relevance to the RBC’s mission) as well as quality of the proposal itself (i.e., how well it communicates the content and whether it includes all necessary components).

Finding Water in the Desert

Water scarcity in arid environments around the world is a threat to ecosystem health as well as to the livelihoods of the one billion people who inhabit them.

Dr. Adam Milewski, an affiliate with the River Basin Center at the University of Georgia and an Associate Professor and Associate Department Head in the Department of Geology, is helping to tackle this issue by researching the best way to locate groundwater recharge in arid regions in the southwestern United States and in several Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.  

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Supporting Policy in the Face of Sea Level Rise

Writer: Hayley Hunter, River Basin Center

Contact: Katie Hill, Carl Vinson Institute of Government

Sea level rise is an issue many coastal communities are already facing. The sea level off the Georgia coast has risen over 9 inches in some places, and that number will only continue to grow (UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant). The Georgia coast has seen more frequent flooding events, more significant tides, and stronger, more dangerous hurricanes.

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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers partners with University of Georgia to form the Network for Engineering With Nature

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and University of Georgia (UGA) recently announced a partnership that connects the interdisciplinary expertise of UGA’s Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems (IRIS), with the vast on-the-ground experience of USACE’s Engineering With Nature® (EWN®) Initiative to form the Network for Engineering With Nature (N-EWN).

Through this partnership and a new $2.5 million award to UGA from USACE, researchers are expanding and accelerating EWN and the practice of natural infrastructure in the public and private sectors.

EWN is an initiative developed by USACE to efficiently and sustainably deliver economic, environmental and social benefits through the use of natural infrastructure. By using a combination of natural and conventional processes and materials, natural infrastructure can protect people, homes and habitats. It can come in many forms and scales, including sand dunes engineered to prevent erosion, floodplains along rivers, which allow the river to ebb and flow without flood risk to communities, and coastal wetlands, which filter out pollution and provide habitat. 

Sixteen UGA researchers from 10 different colleges and departments will apply their expertise to N-EWN’s mission. The project leader for UGA is principal investigator Dr. Brian Bledsoe, a professor in the College of Engineering, who specializes in resilient infrastructure. The N-EWN partnership will also draw from the expertise of the UGA’s River Basin Center and Center for Integrative Conservation Research. In addition, an equal number of researchers from USACE will add their knowledge and skill to the network, led by Dr. Todd Bridges, the EWN National Lead and Dr. Jeffrey King, EWNDeputy National Lead.

“We are delighted to be working closely with USACE’s world class researchers. Together, we can take our research on natural infrastructure to the next level and inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists who will reshape the nation’s water resources infrastructure,” Bledsoe said of the partnership.

In an ambitious set of pilot projects, the researchers will improve methods for using natural infrastructure to strengthen community resilience, create models and dashboards that allow designers to map out how natural infrastructure can provide more benefits to society, and inspire a new generation of engineers, ecologists and social scientists to utilize natural infrastructure through education and workforce development.

To come along on the journey, follow the hashtag #N-EWN on Twitter and Instagram, where we will post updates on the individual projects, researcher profiles, and exciting innovations in the field. Find more information about N-EWN on our website, https://n-ewn.org/

Tennessee Aquarium and UGA’s River Basin Center to Host Pioneering Workshop Addressing Freshwater Microplastic Pollution

Writer: Casey Phillips

Chattanooga, Tenn. (Sept. 10, 2020) – It is the inevitable destiny of all water that falls on land to eventually return to the sea. And like an enthusiastic tourist, it can’t help but pick up souvenirs along the way, whether it’s dirt, fertilizers or — as many scientists now suspect — plastic.

In recent years, the world slowly has awoken to the, ironically, enormous impact microscopic plastic has on marine life. Every year, an average of 8.8 million tons (about 17.6 billion pounds) of plastic fragments or manufactured plastic objects measuring smaller than five millimeters across enter the ocean. There, they’re consumed by microscopic organisms and eventually work their way up the food chain to humans.

Although the bulk of plastic waste originates inland, microplastic is largely seen as a coastal issue thanks to images of plastic debris piled up on beaches or found inside marine animals. Little is known about how this plague of plastic affects the rivers, lakes and streams through which it passes on its way to the sea.

On Sept. 14, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute hopes to make inroads to answering that question as host to a virtual workshop on freshwater microplastic research. The workshop was organized in partnership with the River Basin Center at the University of Georgia. 

Among other topics, participants in the one-day summit will focus on developing standards to ensure current and future researchers can reliably compare and build on each other’s findings.

“In a new field of research where so many different methods are being used, it is extremely important that studies are designed and conducted so we can compare and replicate results from different labs,” says Dr. Anna George, the Aquarium’s vice president of conservation science and education.

“Not only will these studies improve our understanding of how plastic pollution reaches the ocean, they will also provide insight into an emerging threat to maintaining clean water for us all.”

The workshop initially was scheduled to take place in April at the Conservation Institute’s headquarters on the banks of the Tennessee River. However, the ongoing health crisis necessitated a different approach, and it now will be held via Zoom video conference.  

Dr. Krista Capps, an assistant professor with the Odum School of Ecology and Savannah River Ecology Lab, helped organize the workshop of 50 participants. Her research into how microplastic is affected by water treatment facilities has been hampered by a lack of agreed-upon research standards.

The issues caused by this absence of structure spurred the idea for the upcoming workshop, Dr. Capps says.

“There are currently no accepted standard methodologies to collect and identify microplastic pollution, as the field is developing so quickly,” she says. “Many researchers I contacted were also frustrated by this situation. The workshop is an outgrowth of my search for expert advice and a quest to develop standard quality assurance and quality control protocols for sampling and analysis.”

The workshop participants represent a variety of institutions, including the University of Georgia, Sewanee: The University of the South, Auburn University, Mississippi State University, the University of Alabama and Vanderbilt University as well as Riverkeeper organizations, SeaGrant consortiums and government agencies.

“Plastic pollution is a problem that affects everyone,” Dr. Capps says. “The greater diversity of stakeholders and academic disciplines involved in working on this problem, the more holistic our approach to understanding plastic pollution will be.”

The workshop will feature presentations by several experts, including:

·         Dr. Rae McNeish, an assistant professor of biology at California State University, Bakersfield

·         Dr. Jeremy Conkle, an associate professor of physical and environmental science at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi

·         Dr. Andreas Fath, a professor of physical chemistry and analytics at Germany’s Furtwangen University

Dr. Fath made headlines in 2017 with a record-setting marathon swim of the entire 652-length of the Tennessee River. During this 34-day undertaking, he and his team took daily measurements of various water quality indicators, including the presence of microplastics. With data from locations along the entire course of the river, this “swim for science” represented one of the first comprehensive studies of how microplastic moves through freshwater systems.

Analysis of the project’s findings found microplastic levels in the Tennessee River that were 80 times higher than Dr. Fath detected during a similar study of Germany’s Rhine River in 2014. These results were a clear sign that microplastics have a greater, if largely uninvestigated, potential to impact freshwater sources than previously assumed, Dr. George says.

“Some freshwater-focused scientists, myself included, thought plastic in freshwater was moving out to the ocean so quickly that it probably wasn’t having a major impact on freshwater habitats or animals,” she says. “Dr. Fath’s work demonstrated that there was enough microplastic pollution in freshwater habitats that we needed to learn more about its impact in our streams and rivers.”

For more information about the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, visit tnaqua.org/conserve

To learn more about the River Basin Center at the University of Georgia, visit ecology.uga.edu.

Details about Dr. Andreas Fath’s TenneSwim project are at en.rheines-wasser.eu.