Faculty profile: Marcelo Garcia
From Argentina to Illinois, Marcelo H. Garcia's journey has led him to become one of the world’s foremost experts in water resources engineering and science.
Marcelo Garcia was seven years old when he first noticed the power of hydraulic engineering. His family was on vacation in their home country of Argentina, staying in a small house next to a creek. Another family was vacationing nearby, and the children would all play together. To their delight, the grandfather from the neighboring family used stones to build a dam and collect the creek water into a small pool in which the children could play.
“That had an impact on me,” Garcia says. “It surprised me that someone could do something so simple like that and create a pool.”
Today, Garcia is one of the world’s foremost experts in water resources engineering and science. He is the M.T. Geoffrey Yeh Endowed Chair of Civil Engineering and serves as Director of the Ven Te Chow Hydrosystems Laboratory at Illinois. You could say he literally wrote the book on sedimentation engineering, having served as Editor-in-Chief of the Manual of Engineering Practice 110 on the topic, published by the American Society of Civil Engineers. His expertise is sought around the world; in April 2023 he participated in a consulting trip to Ghana, Africa, where he served on a team inspecting the Akosombo and Kpong Dams for the Volta River Authority. Closer to home, his work has helped to vastly improve water management systems in Champaign and Chicago; his contributions to the massive Chicago Tunnel and Reservoir Plan have significantly alleviated the city’s problem with flooding and pollution due to overflows of its combined sewer system during heavy storms.
Fittingly, he says that as a child, “I spent a lot of time in the river.”
FROM ARGENTINA TO THE U.S.
Born in Cordoba, Argentina, in 1959, Garcia grew up comfortable in and around water. His father’s career in the auto industry moved the family to Cordoba, Buenos Aires and finally Santa Fe, where Garcia spent many of his formative years. He grew up swimming and canoeing in the waterways around the city. He belonged to a rowing club along the Santa Fe River, where he played volleyball and water polo. He would go on to excel at volleyball, playing for his high school, his university, and the state and national teams. He was a member of the Argentinian volleyball team when they won the South American Games championship in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, in 1978.
As Garcia finished high school in Santa Fe in 1976, he visited the local university, Universidad Nacional del Litoral. One of the careers they presented was that of Water Resources Engineering, an emerging field at the time. A demonstration of the sort of work water resources engineers do was held outside in the same lagoon where the rowing club was located. Garcia didn’t know it at the time, but the program was a unique one; it was the only existing undergraduate degree program dedicated to Water Resources Engineering. The program had been created by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to establish a school of hydrology and water resources in Latin America during what UNESCO had designated the International Hydrologic Decade. Furthermore, the person behind this initiative was Professor Ven Te Chow, the world-famous hydrologist who had established the renowned Hydrosystems Laboratory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It was the first of a number of coincidences that connected Garcia to the University of Illinois years before he ultimately made his academic home there. At the time, the thing that appealed to Garcia the most was the promise of being able to work outside, in and around water.
Garcia enrolled and began his undergraduate studies, also playing on the university’s volleyball team. In time though, the auto industry began suffering in Argentina’s tumultuous political and economic climate, and his father lost his job. To help his family and continue his studies, Garcia needed to make some money. One of his professors suggested he apply to work for the national water and power company of Argentina, which was pursuing a large dam project on the Parana River near Santa Fe, aided by about 50 technical experts from the Hydroproject Institute in the Soviet Union. Garcia knew technical drafting, which he had learned from his father, and he was good at math, so he tested into a technical assistant position on the project – in an office downtown, far from campus. It was a challenging period, in which Garcia had to punch in at 7 a.m. for an eight-hour day at work and attend class afterwards, keeping up his grades and participating on the volleyball team. The schedule was punishing, but the job was lucrative; one of his benefits included a credit of electricity and natural gas to his parents’ home. In addition, he was gaining valuable professional experience, working alongside some of his professors, who also were employed on the project.
One of those professors eventually offered him a job on the same water resources project but located in a lab on campus – a hydraulic lab led by one of the Russian scientists: Gertrud F. Onipchenko. The location made for a much easier work/school balance for Garcia. The professional opportunity and mentorship were so profound that Garcia still keeps Onipchenko’s business card under glass on his desk.
“Dr. Onipchenko kind of adopted me,” Garcia says. “Working with him was special. He saw something in me, and I was able to work on things at that age that most people don’t get to work on.”
Garcia was put in charge of a study of the erosion of clays from the Parana River and helped to build a highly detailed physical model of the dam project that filled the lab.
“One day during an experiment, Dr. Onipchenko looked into one of his books for a discharge coefficient needed to estimate the flow discharge,” Garcia says. “I could recognize one of the figures,and when I asked him about it, he told me that the book was the Russian translation of Open Channel Hydraulics, published by Ven Te Chow in 1959 -- the year I was born.”
“It was a unique experience,” Garcia says. “At the age of 20, I was in a hydraulics lab.”
He worked in that position from 1979-1983, when he left for the United States to attend graduate school. As Garcia applied to grad schools, the University of Minnesota emerged as an attractive option for a few reasons. He had read about the renowned St. Anthony Falls Hydraulics Laboratory there. In addition, they were able to give him financial aid in the form of a research assistantship. He sold his car and came to the U.S. with $1,300 cash. But the financial aid did not include a tuition waiver, and Garcia soon found graduate school life far more expensive than he had anticipated.
“I went broke,” he says. “I was just too naïve. I got there and didn’t have an apartment, didn’t have anything. I had not done the math.”
He found an efficiency apartment, but the rent was steep on a graduate assistant’s pay. Living without his parents for the first time was also a struggle. He was always setting off his smoke alarm just trying to prepare food. The cold climate was a shock; adding to his financial difficulties, he had to buy a winter coat. He was so poor that when the department’s Christmas potluck came around, a secretary told him not to worry about preparing a dish; she suggested he just bring a jar of pickles. But even that proved too expensive, and Garcia had to arrive empty-handed. To this day, his former classmates still tease him about the missing pickles.
Relief came in the form of an open room at Nu Sigma Nu, a co-ed medical student fraternity located along the Mississippi River. The agreement included room and board for just $160 a month.
“That saved me,” he says.
A cook named Kay Olson – Garcia still recalls her name – prepared the students’ food, including a sack lunch to take to school every day.
“I was the only person who celebrated her food,” Garcia says. “The only thing she would make that I couldn’t eat was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I hadn’t grown up with it.”
Olson kindly made him an alternative sandwich.
The living arrangement gave Garcia more than just financial relief; it offered him a community and a cultural education. The group ate communal meals, watched MASH and basketball games on TV, played broomball and went to the movies.
Garcia had begun dating another student during his undergraduate years who was a year behind him in the Water Resources Engineering program at Universidad Nacional del Litoral, Estela Canga. In fall of 1983 when Garcia went to Minnesota to begin his graduate studies, Estela stayed behind to finish her undergraduate degree. The following year, she wanted to join Garcia in the U.S. but in order for her to get a visa, the couple had to be married.
“Since I did not have the means to go back to Argentina to get married, we decided to get married by proxy in a civil court,” Garcia says. “They had a whole wedding – our families and friends came, but I wasn’t there.”
Estela arrived in Minnesota in August 1984, and the two have been together ever since. Today they have two grown children, Emma Garcia-Canga and Blas Garcia-Canga.
CHARTING A NEW COURSE
During his time in graduate school, Garcia noticed the work of Gary Parker, then an associate professor at Minnesota and now Professor Emeritus of CEE at Illinois. He approached Parker and asked to join his research team. He ended up becoming Parker’s TA for a fluid mechanics course and was assigned to work on what he saw then as an esoteric topic: self-accelerating density currents. When Garcia balked, Parker was direct, he says.
“He told me, ‘Whatever it is you wanted to do, we probably did it a long time ago,’” Garcia says.
The topic was unusual, but it allowed Garcia to dive into sediment transport – which he previously had studied in relation to rivers – as well as turbulence, examining the effect of sediments on the structure of the flow. The necessary experiments had never been done before.
“These were very delicate experiments that took a long time to prepare,” Garcia says. “It opened a whole new universe to me. As time went by, it became apparent that I was doing something that was at the forefront.”
A project at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography near San Diego took his work from the lab to the ocean floor. Researchers were exploring the possibility that storms could cause avalanches of sand deep under the ocean that would self-accelerate, just as an avalanche of snow gets larger and faster as it grows. The project prototype was at Scripps, where there are very active submarine canyons offshore. It was a phenomenon that could not be easily reproduced in the lab, but the vast submarine canyons allowed this experimentation.
“I was in civil engineering doing hydraulics and fluid mechanics, but I went into this area that had a lot more things – hydraulic engineering, fluid mechanics but also oceanography, geology, geomorphology,” Garcia says.
A lucky break came when the CNN Science and Technology show sent a crew from Atlanta, Ga., to film Garcia’s turbidity current experiment. This gave Garcia the idea of trying to publish a paper about the work. Parker agreed, and their paper, “Experiments on Hydraulic Jumps in Turbidity Currents Near a Canyon-Fan Transition” was published in the July 28, 1989, issue of Science. The publication came at a fortuitous time, just as Garcia was finishing his Ph.D. and interviewing for academic positions.
When Garcia joined the civil engineering faculty at Illinois in 1990, it had been nearly 10 years since the death of Ven Te Chow, the noted hydrologist who had achieved international notoriety for the water resources program at UIUC. The Hydrosystems Laboratory, which Chow had helped secure through a grant from the National Science Foundation in 1967, was being used for soil mechanics experiments, which were housed in a pyramid structure in the lab. There were only four faculty in the hydrosystems area at the time.
“I knew that the lab had a lot of potential, but I also knew that I was really going to have to apply myself, because the lab had not been active in a while,” Garcia said. “There wasn’t much hydraulics going on.”
With supportive mentoring from the other hydro faculty, including Ben Chie Yen, Hall Maxwell, Joe Murtha and Al Valocchi, Garcia went about building his research program – and with it, the lab facilities.
“Funding has always been challenging,” he says. “My strategy was to be willing to do whatever project it took to get the lab going. What that meant was to try to do work not just for federal agencies like the National Science Foundation or the Office of Naval Research that tend to give you one project at a time; I also tried to make inroads with state agencies. At the time the Office of Water Resources was under the Illinois Department of Transportation, and they had some funding.”
There was a need to find a solution to the public safety problem of drowning accidents at low-head dams, and Garcia’s experience with physical modeling made him a good candidate to lead the initiative. One of the first of these projects was to drown-proof the Glen Palmer Dam on the Fox River in Yorkville, Ill., which had been the site of more than 20 drowning accidents in as many years. To address these problems, Garcia began building physical models that helped him assess the problem and create a solution. Garcia’s solution in Yorkville was to modify the shape of the spillway into four steps to dissipate the energy of the water and prevent the formation of the “roller” causing the accidental drownings. Since it was built, there have been no drowning accidents at the dam. For another dam redesign at Wichita, Kan., researchers also included a canoe chute and fish passage to help canoeists safely bypass the dam and allow fish to migrate. As his models began taking up increasing space in the lab, they eventually surrounded the soil mechanics “pyramid.”
“It was like the siege of Troy,” Garcia says. The soil mechanics research was given a new home, and the hydrosystems lab once again became fully dedicated to hydraulic engineering. That year, 1997, they also named the hydrosystems lab after Ven Te Chow.
In the years that followed, Garcia continued to seek out projects that would allow expansion of the lab facilities. The equipment he acquired – like a one-of-a-kind oscillatory flow tunnel and a Kinoshita Meandering Flume – make the Ven Te Chow lab uniquely outfitted to conduct physical experiments that add a critical element to research projects.
“A numerical model gives you some approximation of what is going to happen, but doing physical experiments is paramount,” Garcia says. “All this discussion going on about using artificial intelligence – well, you can’t use artificial intelligence to recreate an experiment, to recreate real physics.”
Additionally, Garcia’s research program has supported waves of student researchers – more than 40 Ph.D. students and more than 60 M.S. students.
“The work was excellent, and we got excellent students,” he says. “I couldn’t have done everything I did without these outstanding students.”
Another significant project beginning in 1994 was a 10-year flood control and water management project on Boneyard Creek, the drainage stream that flows through the UIUC campus. The creek had been a flooding and water quality problem for more than 100 years. The project to improve it was led by local, alumni-owned engineering firm Berns, Clancy and Associates. As part of the project, Garcia constructed physical models of two of the key areas along the channel – Wright Street and Lincoln Avenue. The models served to test, calibrate and improve the mathematical modeling of the proposed hydraulic design and gave the public a chance to see physical representations of how the project would alleviate flood event impacts. Garcia uses Boneyard Creek as a flood control class project in his undergraduate hydraulic engineering course.
Despite success downstate in Illinois, Garcia found it difficult to find projects in Chicago. An opportunity came when scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey identified a strange phenomenon in the Chicago River in January 1998; a bidirectional flow that Chicago engineers were struggling to explain. At the surface, the river was flowing west as expected, but down near the riverbed, water was traveling in the opposite direction, east toward Lake Michigan. The flow was troubling from a water quality standpoint, because it meant water from one of the area’s largest wastewater treatment plants could be contaminating the river or even making its way out to Lake Michigan. The odd flow was seen in subsequent years as well, but only in the winter months.
Garcia suspected a density current, the somewhat obscure subject of his Ph.D. work at the University of Minnesota. He suspected that some of the denser water from the Chicago River’s North Branch was plunging below the surface and creating a “river under the river.” But Chicago engineers had other theories, including currents caused by wind blowing along the water surface.
“It took me a lot of time to convince them that it was worthwhile to look deeper into it,” Garcia says. “Walking along the Chicago River walk with my children, during Saint Patrick’s Day when the river is dyed green, gave me the idea that we could do the same in the laboratory to demonstrate the development of density currents. It was a Eureka moment,” he added.
In 2001, thanks in part to support from Illinois CEE alumnus Richard Lanyon (BS 60, MS 61) at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), Garcia and his research team got a chance to test the theory. With funding from the MWRD and data from the U.S. Geological Survey, Garcia and then-grad student Fabian Bombardelli (PhD 04) built a 3D numerical model of the Chicago River system. It was one of the first applications of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) at such a large scale. The resulting simulations proved the likelihood that density currents were causing the bi-directional flow first of observed by scientists from the US Geological Survey. To further validate their work, Garcia and his team constructed a fiberglass physical model of the Chicago River in the Hydrosystems Lab. In subsequent years, they have learned that the cause of the denser water was salt runoff from the winter roadways and have worked to explore ways to prevent such currents.
Once the MWRD had seen what Garcia and his research team could do, Chicago opened up. The city’s 40-year, $4 billion Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) provided more opportunities for UIUC hydrosystems researchers. TARP was a joint project of the MWRD, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the goal of alleviating flooding in Chicago and pollution in its waterways. The project called for the construction of 109 miles of massive tunnels and huge reservoirs to store the overflow from the city’s combined sewer systems until the wastewater plants could handle it. CEE researchers helped optimize the design and operation of the system through computer modeling.
The team developed MetroFlow, which provided a hydrologic/hydraulic modeling framework for the city and surrounding areas. MetroFlow was used to analyze the performance of the Main Stem and Des Plaines Deep Tunnels and the McCook Reservoir. Hydrologic Models were also implemented for the Calumet TARP system. The group also developed the Illinois Urban Hydrology Model (IUHM), which uses a probabilistic approach when there is not enough physical information about the system. As part of the effort, the team developed the Illinois Transient Model (ITM) to analyze the rainfall conditions which can lead to surcharging of the tunnels and result in the geisering phenomenon where air trapped inside the tunnels is violently released through manholes and dropshafts. A set of primary settling tanks for the Calumet wastewater treatment plant was designed using one of the first applications of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) in the water industry. They turned out to be so efficient at removing solids, that although eight were constructed only four are needed. CFD analysis was also applied successfully to reduce turbulence and increase the efficiency of secondary treatment tanks at the O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant on the North Shore Channel.
A later project for the MWRD provided a nexus between MetroFlow and the Chicago Area Waterways (CAWS), which resulted in the development of the first 3D hydrodynamic and water quality modeling of the Chicago River system, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC) and the Cal-Sag Canal on the south side. This model recently has been used to analyze the dynamics of nutrients in the waterways as well as potential harmful algae bloom conditions.
“The MWRD has been an awesome source of support for us, and we have given them our best. We have saved them millions of dollars,” Garcia says.
One of Garcia’s proudest accomplishments is having revitalized the Hydrosystems Lab since his arrival in Illinois in 1990.
“People had written it off,” he says. “I’m very proud that we brought the lab that Ven Te Chow so incredibly got for the school back to life. We made it active again and reached a place of prominence both nationally and internationally.”
Garcia traces his academic roots back to noted engineer and University of Illinois structural engineering professor Hardy Cross, who in 1936 published the Engineering Experiment Station Bulletin No 286, “Analysis of Flow in Networks of Conduits or Conductors.” The bulletin detailed what became known as the Hardy Cross Method for determining the flow in pipe network systems. One of Cross’ advisees was Lorenz G. Straub, a native of Kansas City, Mo., who earned all his degrees from Illinois, including his Ph.D. in 1930 and then joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota, where he established the St. Anthony Falls Hydraulics Laboratory. One of Straub’s advisees and research collaborators was Alvin Anderson, who advised Gary Parker, who in turn advised Garcia. Garcia sees it as a “spiritual connection” to Illinois that has threaded through his career.
“There is this serendipity like a meandering river that kind of brings you all around,” he says. “What are the odds that I would start my education in Santa Fe, Argentina, go to school in Minnesota, and then end up coming here to kind of finish what other people started.”
In 2020 when half of the old Hydrosystems Lab was being demolished to make way for the new Civil and Environmental Engineering Building and Smart Bridge, Garcia happened to notice a stainless-steel plaque sitting in the rubble. It was from 1967 when the old lab was dedicated, after Ven Te Chow spearheaded the effort in the 1960s to seek funding from the National Science Foundation to build it. Garcia rescued the plaque and made sure it was hung in the new building.
“It’s very, very important to know where we came from, where it all started,” he says. “Illinois has a history of dealing with water since the earliest days of the University of Illinois, when Arthur Newell Talbot proposed a formula to design drainage channels. So, preserving that – the legacy of Ven Te Chow and all the people who have worked here with water – I think, is very, very important.”