Rafael O. Tinoco

 Rafael O. Tinoco
Rafael O. Tinoco
  • Assistant Professor
(217) 265-6931
3028 Civil Eng Hydrosystems Lab

Primary Research Area

  • Water Resources Engineering and Science

Research Areas

For More Information


Biographical sketch.

Rafael O. Tinoco holds a Civil Engineering degree from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (2005). He conducted his graduate studies at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University, where he earned his M.S. (2008) and Ph.D. (2011) in Environmental Fluid Mechanics and Hydrology.

After graduation, Dr. Tinoco worked as a lecturer and postdoctoral associate at Cornell University, before taking a postdoctoral researcher position at the Environmental Hydraulics Institute of Cantabria. He later returned to Cornell University as a visiting instructor, teaching undergraduate and graduate level courses on fluid mechanics and transport and mixing processes, before joining the Faculty at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois during Fall 2015.


  • Ph.D. Civil and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University, 2011
  • M.S. Civil and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University, 2008
  • B.S. Civil Engineering, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 2005

Academic Positions

  • Assistant Professor, University of Illinois, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, August 2015 - Present
  • Instructor, Cornell University, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, May 2015 - July 2015
  • Visiting Instructor, Cornell University, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, May 2014 - December 2014
  • Postdoctoral Research Associate, Environmental Hydraulics Institute of Cantabria, July 2012 - May 2014
  • Postdoctoral Research Associate, Cornell University, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, January 2012 - July 2012
  • Instructor, Cornell University, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, August 2011 - December 2011

Professional Registrations

  • International Association for Hydro-Environment Engineering and Research, IAHR, 2009-Present
  • International Association of Hydrological Sciences, IAHS, 2008 - Present
  • American Geophysical Union, AGU, 2007 - Present

Research Statement

Research Statement

Vision: I work towards a paradigm change to understand the feedbacks and interactions between flow and biota at a fundamental level, as part of a physical and biological continuum more complex than the sum of its parts. I envision a substrate-to-surface approach to characterize the interconnected physical and biological processes at multiple scales within dynamic living environments from the sediment-water to the water-air interface, from rivers to coastal areas. Focusing on fundamental hydrodynamic interactions between flow and biota allows us to develop new theoretical frameworks based on turbulent features of the flow, leading to more accurate descriptions of ecohydraulic processes than traditional models which didn’t consider turbulence metrics. Through laboratory experiments, we aim to develop process-based models and predictors to be incorporated in large-scale long-term models of ecosystem alterations and morphodynamic change. Our process-based, substrate-to-surface, continuum approach allows us to address a broad range of ecohydraulic processes and applications, such as river management and restoration, coastal protection, and design and implementation of nature-based solutions.

Research Group: I have built a research group that uses state-of-the-art experimental techniques to better understand flow-biota interactions based on turbulent processes. We aim to (a) develop new models to assess the role of aquatic ecosystems on transport processes, (b) create strategies for monitoring and control of aquatic species, and (c) build theoretical frameworks, leveraged on our understanding of hydrodynamic turbulent processes, to ensure a balance between aquatic ecosystems’ health and the ecosystem services they provide. My research has been funded by local, regional, and federal agencies, totaling $2,823,013 in research funds, from which $1,977,741 correspond to my group at UIUC. Those grants allowed us to conduct unique, novel series of laboratory experiments at the Ven Te Chow Hydrosystems Laboratory (VTCHL) and at the Ecohydraulics and Ecomorphodynamics Laboratory (EEL). Our findings have been published in top leading journals in our field, and have been presented at multiple international conferences where they have been positively received by the community. Recognition from our work in the field of Ecohydraulics and Ecomorphodynamics has allowed me to organize successful special sessions at various conferences since 2016, and being elected to the IAHR Leadership Team of the Ecohydraulics Technical Committee in 2019.

Research Interests: I had previously developed parameterizations for aquatic vegetation effects in streams (Tinoco & Cowen 2013, King et al. 2012), and identified the relevance of vegetation-generated turbulence as the main driver of sediment resuspension for emergent and submerged vegetation, in both fluvial (Tinoco & Coco 2014, 2016) and coastal regions (Tinoco & Coco 2014, 2018), which showed that turbulence-based predictors can be more effective than models based on mean flow. My research group at UIUC has thus branched out to assess the role of turbulent flows on ecosystem functions and services, focusing on characterization of fundamental processes to address: (1) Transport processes through aquatic ecosystems, (2) Control and monitoring of aquatic invasive species, and (3) Hydrodynamic-based frameworks for assessment of ecosystem health.

1. Transport processes through aquatic ecosystems: The overarching theme of my research is to advance the fundamental understanding of physical interactions between flow, aquatic organisms, and their habitat, as we describe in our vision paper in Tinoco et al. (2019). Funded by an NSF-GLD CAREER Award (CAREER - From Substrate to Surface: Quantifying the Impact of Aquatic Vegetation on Exchange Processes, 2018-2023) we characterize transport processes at the sediment-water and water-air interfaces, at the core of the doctoral work of two research group members (San Juan 2021, Tseng 2022). We identified how the biomechanical feedback between flow and plants determines three-dimensional plant motion, creating blade- and leaf-scale eddies from the prone branches near the bed that affects sediment transport capabilities (San Juan et al. 2019). We developed a two-layer model that includes three turbulence sources (from stems, from the bed, and from coherent structures caused by stem-bed-flow interactions) to more accurately predict suspended sediment concentration profiles for streams with aquatic vegetation (Tseng & Tinoco 2021a). Moving from the substrate to the surface, we developed a modified surface-renewal model to predict surface gas transfer rates in vegetated flows based on the production of turbulent kinetic energy by plant canopies (Tseng & Tinoco 2020), and connected both sediment resuspension and gas transfer dynamics by developing a process-based model for gas transfer across the sediment-water-air interfaces in vegetated streams (Tseng & Tinoco 2021b). Our work has helped us understand the links between sediment-oxygen demand and dissolved oxygen dynamics in the presence of benthic populations, which we envision as a key component on improving global carbon budgets for climate change prediction. The laboratory efforts have been complemented by numerical experiments, supported by computational allocations by INCITE at Oak Ridge/Argonne Leadership Computing Facility and NCSA-Blue Waters Awards, focused on resolving three-dimensional features not captured by the laboratory experiments (Ranjan 2018, Ranjan et al. 2022). To develop a full picture from streams to the ocean, we have developed simplified predictors for turbulence metrics for aquatic vegetation under waves, to assess turbulent kinetic energy near the bed and at the top of vegetation canopies, both paramount in the prediction of sediment transport and mixing in aquatic ecosystems (San Juan & Tinoco*, Ch. 3 of San Juan 2021, submitted to JGR-ES). We use such turbulence metrics to build a modified turbulence-based Shields number to predict near bed sediment concentration and develop a simplified exponential model to account for vegetation-generated turbulence and upward convective sediment fluxes from vegetation-bed-wave interactions (San Juan et al.**, Ch. 4 of San Juan 2021, in prep. for WRR). The last pieces of this effort, to adapt our surface gas transfer model to wave conditions and test our predictors against field data are currently underway, directly linked to a New Zealand-Marsden Fund supported collaboration (Bridging the laboratory-field divide to accurately predict the evolution of coastlines) with the University of Waikato and University of Maryland. The Marsden-funded project will allow us to collect data in mangrove forests in the coast of NZ to validate and adapt our predictors to more complex and realistic scenarios.

2. Control and monitoring of aquatic species: Based on our work on flow-vegetation interactions, we identified that a precise description of transport of aquatic species in streams can’t be made from a purely biological approach. Funded by the US Geological Survey (Laboratory experiments on Asian carp eggs and larvae: characterization of settling velocities, drifting response, and survival rate, 2018-2020), working with a team of biologists and hydrologists, we identified the effect of turbulent flow features on survival rates of invasive grass carp eggs and larvae (Prada et al. 2018) and quantified turbulent thresholds that determine whether larvae are attracted or deterred from in-stream structures (Prada et al. 2019, 2021). We also determined how turbulent length scales and turbulent time scales are more relevant than turbulence intensity for larvae to identify shelter regions within aquatic vegetation (Tinoco et al. 2022). The toolset developed during our grass carp studies allowed us to expand in three new directions: 1) to implement our findings on behavioral response of larvae to turbulent flow features in numerical Lagrangian models (e.g., FluEgg), 2) to develop new barriers for control of invasive carp in rivers (project funded by the US Geological Survey, Efficacy of an Oblique Bubble Screen System as a Two-Way Dispersal Barrier for Invasive Carp, 2021-2024), and to assess the response of other invasive species to turbulence features, such as sea lamprey in the Great Lakes (funded by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Identifying turbulence features that alter trap efficiency of upstream-swimming lamprey, 2021-2022).

3. Ecosystem health and ecosystem services: As we continue our work to better understand fundamental physical processes and flow-biota interactions, we are establishing collaborations to apply our findings at local and regional scales. Working on a project funded by the Illinois-Indiana SeaGrant Program (Investigating fish energy use and swimming behavior in complex, turbulent flows to guide habitat management, conservation, and restoration in Lake Michigan tributaries, 2018-2021) we identified physiological responses of fish to various types of turbulence features (Strailey et al. 2020) to inform better practices on fish ladders, stream restoration and naturalization. A recently awarded grant from the US Geological Survey with the Illinois Water Resources Center (Enemy of my enemy?: Ecohydraulic assessment of interactions of multiple invasive species in the Upper Mississippi River basin, 2022-2025) will allow us to build a framework to (a) improve understanding of the impact of invasive species on lakes and rivers, including water quality and ecosystem dynamics; (b) identify lake and river characteristics that promote or hinder their establishment; and (c) guide management decisions that will improve water resources at regional scales. A new project with the US Army Corps of Engineers (Evaluation of Micro-Hydro Units for Army Resilience, 2022-2023) will allow us to optimize energy output in shallow-flows turbines, addressing the environmental impact of the micro-hydro deployments. We have ongoing and under review proposals for green infrastructure and nature-based solutions aimed at continuing our work across scales to develop practical solutions to address critical challenges in rivers and coastal cities.

Primary Research Area

  • Water Resources Engineering and Science

Research Areas

Books Edited or Co-Edited (Original Editions)

Selected Articles in Journals

Articles in Conference Proceedings

  • Tinoco, R.O., Diaz-Gonzalez, D., Blahnik, L., Freitag, B. & Carlstrom, S., “Thermal Mixing at Vegetated Stream Confluences”, 38th IAHR World Congress, September 1-6, 2019, Panama City, Panama.
  • King, A.T., Rueda-Valdivia, F.J., Tinoco, R.O., & Cowen, E.A., "Modeling flow and transport through aquatic vegetation in natural water bodies", In Water Engineering for a Sustainable Environment, Proceedings of the 33rd IAHR Congress, Vancouver BC, Canada, August 13, 2009.
  • Tinoco, R.O. & Cowen, E.A., “Experimental study of flow through macrophyte canopies”, In Water Engineering for a Sustainable Environment, Proceedings of the 33rd IAHR Congress, Vancouver BC, Canada, pp. 6160-6166. 2009
  • Tinoco, R.O. & Cowen, E.A., “Effects of aquatic vegetation density on low speed flows”, Proceedings of the 7th International Symposium on Ecohydraulics, Concepción, Chile, January 13, 2009. p. 510-515

Magazine Articles

  • Tinoco, R.O., & Jaime, A., 2005. La carrera de Ingeniería Civil: una prospectiva (Expectations of the programs of Civil Engineering). Civil Engineering Journal from the CICM, 425(52), September 2004, in Spanish.


  • Rutherford, C., Pinter, N., Gamez, J., Harder, L., Lobbestael, A., Musgrove, M., Tinoco, R.O., Bernhardt, M., Mofarraj, B., Uong, M.D., & Heddlesten, A. Preliminary Observations of Levee Performance and Damage following the 2015-16 Midwest Floods in Missouri and Illinois, USA. GEER Report.
  • Tinoco, R.O., & Jaime, A., 2005. Evolución de las carreras de Ingeniería Civil (Evolution of the Civil Engineering programs), FICA Book series, 2005, in Spanish.

Teaching Honors

  • List of Teachers ranked as Excellent by their Students, Fall 2020 (CEE555) (Fall 2020)
  • List of Teachers ranked as Excellent by their Students, Fall 2018 (CEE555) (Fall 2018)
  • List of Teachers ranked as Excellent by their Students, Spring 2017 (CEE498eh) (Spring 2017)

Research Honors

  • NSF CAREER Award (2018)

Other Honors

  • Student award: Chien-Yung Tseng – awarded Best Young Professional Award at the IAHR 9th International Symposium on Environmental Hydraulics. Seoul, Korea (July 2021)
  • Augusto Gonzalez Linares Fellowship to attract international talent in strategic areas, University of Cantabria, Spain (2012 - 2014)