Over 50 military officers from the Great Lakes region participated in a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Great Lakes & Ohio River Division (LRD) Officer Professional Development (OPD) conference in Chicago last month to collaborate and gain a better understanding of the USACE Chicago District’s (LRC) civil works program, and its role in solving the city’s water resource challenges.
“We believe the history of Chicago is the history of our water,” Col. Aaron Reisinger, commander, USACE Chicago District, said. “In 1803, Ft. Dearborn was established on the south bank of the Chicago River, marking the Army’s first presence here. In 1833, work on the Chicago Harbor began and Chicago quickly grew into a busy port. Thirty-seven years later, in 1870, the Corps’ Chicago District was established. Next year is our 150th anniversary – and we plan to highlight our accomplishments and celebrate big.”
This is the second OPD in LRD. Last fall, it was held at the Louisville District, one of seven districts in the division. According to Maj. Gen. Mark Toy, commanding general of LRD, the best way to deliver the program is by taking care of people. And we do that through “DRIVE” and its key component - the workforce readiness program aka “WkRP.” The “D” in “DRIVE” stands for develop future talent; the “R” stands for refine internal management; “I” means improve regional processes; “V” equals value open communication; and the “E” stands for empower multidisciplinary teams.
“Our workforce readiness program is a commitment in how we operationalized our taking-care-of people mantra,” Maj. Gen. Toy said. “With the workload that we have across the region, the best way that we’re going to be able to deliver that program is by taking care of our workforce. That’s why we had the workforce readiness program developed. Making sure that we get people into not only the Chicago District but the entire division. And that we take care of them, we sponsor them, we train them, we mentor them, and we award them for the great things that they do.”
He also said that he wants the Officers – especially junior Officers – to see LRD beyond just where their project is.
“Because, as we know, we operate as a region,” he said. “We’ve got two specific watersheds – the Great Lakes watershed and Ohio River basin. And if you’re working at a project level, let’s say in Huntington District on the river, you don’t get the larger perspective. So what this conference does for our Officers, specifically our younger Officers, is to help them see a more strategic perspective of the division.”
Capt. (P) Felipe Perez, LRC project manager, is here completing his USACE two-year utilization tour as part of the Army's Advanced Civil Schooling program in which he received a fully-funded master's degree in construction management from the Georgia Institute of Technology. After one more year at LRC, he’ll head to the Command and General Staff College for Intermediate Level Education. He’s attended both division OPDs.
“The OPD is important because it allows all Officer's the opportunity to gain exposure to the different and unique challenges and opportunities that USACE faces across the region,” Capt. Perez said. “Additionally, the ability to cross communicate and network with other Officers across the division is invaluable.”
The three-day conference included district project and history briefings, project site visits, physical training, a Chicago River boat tour, events for spouses, and socials to build esprit de corps.
“In conducting the research needed for my briefing, I found it remarkable how so much of Chicago’s history is intertwined with that of the Army and the Corps of Engineers,” David Bucaro, outreach manager, said. “Since 1816, when the first Army engineers surveyed the Chicago portage, the Corps has been integral to the Chicagoland area’s vitality by helping to enable waterborne commerce, mitigate flooding, and restore ecosystems unintentionally damaged by past practices. The Chicago District has a rich and important history, one that I’m proud of, and one that I was honored to share with so many Army engineer Officers.”
Chuck Shea, project manager, conducted a tour of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (CSSC) dispersal barriers in Romeoville, Illinois. The CSSC is a man-made waterway that is the only continuous connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin, and the purpose of the barriers is to deter movement of invasive fish species between the Mississippi River basin and the Great Lakes. LRC currently has a staff of eight who work at the barriers full time.
“The barriers are an interesting and unique project,” Shea said. “We've tried to identify other similar projects to seek lessons learned and haven't found any other large electric fish barriers in the world. It's truly a one-of-a-kind project.”
Nick Barkowski, fish biologist, led the planning effort and organized a visit to Northerly Island, one of LRC’s 33 ecosystem restoration projects completed or under construction within its footprint of six counties in Illinois and three in northwest Indiana. He and his team – John Belcik, biologist and planner, and Jake Berger, biologist student trainee – were involved in the field sampling of fishes at the location, located adjacent to the Adler Planetarium. Robbie Sliwinski, botanist, and Jason Zylka, ecologist, provided tours of the floristic community restoration at the site. And Frank Veraldi, restoration ecologist and regional technical specialist, provided an overview of ecosystem restoration during a visit at the Shedd Aquarium.
To prepare for the OPD, three mini-fyke nets were set overnight at three different locations to sample the restored aquatic wetland. They also did some backpack electrofishing near the mouth of the wetland where it connects to the lake. A demo was also done to show how the mini-fyke nets and the backpack electroshocker work.
"It is important to share the expertise, skill sets, and passion that Chicago District employees contribute to the Corps' ecosystem restoration mission with our regional leadership,” Matthew Shanks, deputy chief of Planning, said. “Aligning regularly-scheduled monitoring for our restoration projects, like Northerly Island, with developmental opportunities, like the OPD visit, efficiently shares our capabilities while accomplishing the mission."
Col. Antoinette Gant, commander, USACE Louisville District, said it’s important for everyone, especially young Officers, to understand not only what the Corps of Engineers does as a whole but what’s done on the professional side of the house – both inside and outside of USACE. And she said this conference does a great job of teaching everyone that and more.
“The best part of this conference is that we get to bring everyone together,” she said. “To be able to share ideas and also talk about the challenges we have in our perspective areas and to learn what our brother and sister districts are really doing. Col. Reisinger and his team did an excellent job at getting us to understand some of the challenges that the Chicago District has and also some of the positive things such as the relationships with their stakeholders and their partners, and ultimately how Chicago District ties into the history of the city itself, and the importance of why this district needs to be here. I don’t think we could have found a better place to be able to do that and they did a phenomenal job. This is our second time doing this and it just continues to get better and better.”