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CEE Alumnus Wins Prestigious Award from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Brett Towler being presented with his U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service award

UMass alumnus Brett Towler (B.S. in Civil Engineering, 1996) recently received a prestigious award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for his work to advance the science of fish-passage engineering. He received one of just three national science awards given each year to the service’s employees for their extraordinary contributions to conservation science. Towler, a hydraulic engineer, took home the Sam D. Hamilton Award for Transformational Conservation Science, presented during a ceremony at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources conference in Denver on March 7, 2019.

The Sam D. Hamilton Award was named after a former director of the southeast region for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was a champion for collaboration and innovation in leading coastal restoration efforts in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In Towler’s case, according to a press release issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the motivating conservation challenge has been more than just the barriers holding fish back, but the barriers holding back fish-passage science.

“For a long time, much of the information we had on fish passage came from research on Pacific salmon on the west coast,” Towler explained in the release. “But we have many other anadromous fish in our rivers that face unique challenges, like American shad and eel.”

The release added that, although research was taking place to understand these challenges, there were few mechanisms for transferring this technology to practitioners in the field.

In response, Towler dedicated himself to increasing the rigor and accessibility of fish-passage engineering science through publications, education, and training. The press release explained that, in 2010, he developed a partnership with the UMass Amherst’s Master of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering program to improve the ecological literacy of the next generation of fish-passage engineers through specialized courses and research opportunities.

The release said that Towler, recognizing the need for collaboration to advance fish-passage science, wrote a memorandum of understanding to synthesize research priorities for UMass, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Service, resulting in stronger relationships and better conservation outcomes. In 2016, he produced the first U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manual on anadromous fish passage for the east coast, providing standardized design guidelines that are now being used by states, consultants, and other federal agencies.

“Considering the enormity of our conservation challenges, we need the best and most creative minds working towards innovative solutions,” said Will Duncan, species and habitat conservation branch chief for the northeast region. “Brett embodies the creative and innovative spirit of our agency, and his scientific capabilities have produced broad-ranging benefits. He has repeatedly shown that we can achieve great conservation outcomes while also serving the needs of private industry and citizens.”

A perfect example is a project in which Towler and fellow award winner William Ardren worked together to address a fish-passage challenge on Vermont’s Winooski River in collaboration with Green Mountain Power. Building on Ardren’s research, Towler assessed downstream passage at a hydropower dam on the river and recommended a few small modifications to a structure that will enable young salmon to migrate out to Lake Champlain to mature and help their population grow. (April 2019)