Monitoring water from space

One of the familiar faces around Goodnight Hall—the home of the Aquatic Sciences Center—since spring 2018 is Associate Fellow Steven R. Greb. Retired after 32 fruitful years with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Greb continues to protect Wisconsin’s waters using innovative technology.

Greb began his tenure at the DNR’s research bureau in 1986, fresh from graduate school at Utah State University. For the Menomonee Falls native and undergraduate alum of UW-Stevens Point, it marked a welcome return to his home state. “We did a lot of really interesting work (at the DNR). When you have fun and are constantly learning, those are good jobs to have, and so I spent my career there,” said Greb.

It was at the DNR that Greb met Jennifer Hauxwell, who was with the agency before taking on her role as an assistant director with the Aquatic Sciences Center (ASC). Hauxwell helped facilitate Greb’s honorary role at the ASC.

One of Greb’s major endeavors at the DNR was using satellite remote sensing to measure water quality from space, something that attracted considerable attention both nationally and internationally. These efforts required extensive collaboration since, as Greb noted, “The state of Wisconsin is not going to build a satellite.” Greb worked with space agencies and other scientists around the country and globe. Those interactions led, in time, to his being invited to serve a three-year term on a body called the International Ocean-Colour Coordinating Group (IOCCG).

As the name implies, IOCCG focuses on oceans, while Greb’s focus has been on inland waters—so he proposed a working group of the IOCCG on using satellite and remote sensing for inland water quality.

Those efforts resulted in a 2018 publication of which Greb is quite proud: the report “Earth Observations in Support of Global Water Quality Monitoring” (IOCCG report No. 17, available online at

Greb assembled top researchers from many countries. He began with a group of 15, and that group eventually expanded to 22.

Their report, which Greb co-edited, is constructed in three sections, each geared to a different audience: end users (such as water quality managers and lake property owners), the scientific community and space agencies. The final chapter contains recommendations for all three groups and also identifies issues such as gaps in the science and what space agencies should consider in the next generation of satellites.

While Greb said some skepticism of satellite remote sensing remains, the technology is getting better and better all the time. He stresses that the technique, combined with in situ water samples, reveals more about water quality than either approach could alone. “For example, a sample taken at a single point may not truly represent water quality conditions of the whole waterbody, whereas a satellite image gives you a better sense of the spatial variability across the waterbody,” said Greb.

Aside from his activities at the ASC, Greb maintains a one-third appointment on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus through the Space Science and Engineering Center. He also continues to serve as the director of Aqua Watch, a community of practice around water quality within the Group on Earth Observations.

With all of these professional activities, Greb’s “retirement” may seem like a misnomer. Yet he still finds time to enjoy hobbies and travel with his wife. As avid cyclists, the two have taken bike trips to France and Ireland. Greb also enjoys skiing, gardening and woodworking.

To get in touch with Steve Greb, contact him at


Dock Drama

A few years ago, Gene Clark, Wisconsin Sea Grant’s coastal engineer, got a call from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about a problem. Residents of Madeline Island in Lake Superior were complaining that a neighbor’s pier seemed to be causing erosion to their beaches. The DNR wanted Clark to come to the island and take a look.

That the DNR would turn to Clark for objective advice is not uncommon. “If the DNR has an issue or a significant erosion control project that somebody wants to do, they often ask me either to look at the plans or to go out with them to the site,” Clark said. “That’s what this was.”

The conditions were evident to Clark right away. “There was a definite buildup of sand on one side of the pier, and a significant deficit on the other side,” Clark said. After doing some more research, he learned that the problem probably started even before the current owners bought the property. They inherited a dock and a concrete pad built for a commercial fishing operation. The structures interfered with the natural dispersal of sand along the beach.

The problem was intensified when the owners, Philip and Terri Myers, added onto the structure under a permit issued by the DNR in 2001, until they had a “significant private property dock with portions of the old one still in place,” Clark said.

“Some of my conclusions were that the entirety of the group of structures were making a difference on the down-drift side. It was difficult to pull out how much of that was attributable to the portion that the current dock owner built because there’s still remnants of the old structure,” Clark said. “But clearly the combination of all of the changes were making a difference.”

Another issue was that the current dock had an opening that was too small, and behind it about 20 feet were remnants of another dock that were blocking the flow of sand so that it quickly piled up. One neighboring property owner said he had lost about 80 percent of his beach. Another called Clark in tears because her former large beach was now nothing but a five-foot embankment.

A storm had damaged the pier and the owners wanted to make it larger and more solid. In cooperation with the DNR and Philip Myers, Clark worked on design ideas that would allow the dock to be sturdier, yet make it more permeable so that sand could travel naturally down the beach to the neighbors’ properties. Myers did not agree to the eventual plans, so the DNR denied him a permit for reconstruction.

Myers took the case to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals District 3. Citing Clark’s information in three instances, the court ruled against Myers, noting that his reconstruction plans would cause increased shoreline erosion for his neighbors.

Myers then took the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. After reviewing briefs filed by the DNR and Myers, on January 18 the court ruled in favor of the Myerses, saying that the DNR did not have the authority to amend the Myerses’ permit granted in 2001. This effectively reversed the court of appeals decision.

In their decision, the judges cited Clark’s report, honing in on his expert view that it was “extremely difficult to estimate how much if any additional littoral material trapping is occurring due only to the [Myerses’] newer pier structures.”

The judges contend that the dock permit is akin to a building permit, which can no longer be modified after construction is complete after the time period specified in the permit. In this case, it was three years. They said that although “The DNR possesses a limited right to modify a permit until the earlier of the expiration date of the permit or the date when pier placement was completed . . . that right does not include the ability to require partial removal of a pier, and substantial modification to a permit, over 14 years after a pier was placed.”

In effect, the Myerses’ permit expired, so the DNR could not require modifications to their pier.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Ann Walsh Bradley argued that piers are not like buildings because they are constructed in the more dynamic environment of water rather than the more static element of land. She thinks the pier-permitting statues give the DNR the right to amend permits and set forth a continuing obligation to meet the permit requirements.

“The question raised in this case is what happens when a pier meets the criteria of [state statutes] when it is initially installed, but at some point conditions change and the pier no longer meets the statutory requirements,” Bradley writes. “The statute dictates that if the requirements are not met, then a permit shall not issue. This means that the non-compliant condition must be corrected.”

She said the court’s decision renders the DNR “toothless” to fix similar situations where a pier is not functioning properly, “even if it obstructs navigation, is a detriment to the public interest, or reduces flood flow capacity.”

This fascinating case has gone as far as it can, for now. Whatever the decision, Clark said he was satisfied that the courts and the DNR used his expertise to make their arguments, in line with Wisconsin Sea Grant’s role as a purveyor of evidence-based information.

While the case was going through the courts, natural coastal processes continued in Lake Superior. Several more storms destroyed much of the pier. So although this case may have a long-lasting impact on the way the DNR manages permits, the structures that raised the issues are no longer functioning.

The lake, it seems, had the final say.


Knauss Fellowship celebrates 40 years

Since 1982, the marine-science and marine-policy career hopes and dreams of 28 Wisconsin scholars were sparked and nurtured into a blaze due to something known as the John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, which celebrates a 40-year anniversary this year. The nationally competitive 12-month Washington, D.C.-based fellowship matches graduate students with an interest in ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources and national policy with an executive office, a member of Congress or a congressional committee with jurisdiction over coastal matters.

The 28 Wisconsin fellows have now gone on to careers in both the public and private sector. The first Knauss Fellow from Wisconsin, Bill Horns (1982), retired in 2014 from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). A retirement resolution adopted by the Natural Resources Board to commemorate his contributions reads, in part, “Bill’s excellent service to the DNR on both the Wisconsin and national stages is recognized across the Great Lakes community. From serving on the DNR Invasive Species Team to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Review Committee for the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act, to the Council of Lake Committees, Bill has provided a consistent voice on fish management issues.”

Wisconsin’s two most-recent Knauss Fellows—from the 2017 cohort—Shelby (LaBuhn) Brunner and Danielle (Cloutier) Brunner remained in the Washington, D.C., area immediately following the conclusion of their experiences. The first Brunner, Shelby, is now a project specialist for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and coordinator for international ocean observing projects. The organization is in Silver Spring, Maryland. The second Brunner, Danielle, was in government relations for the nonprofit Oceana and recently returned to Wisconsin to pursue other professional options.

Of course, there were many other people and experiences between the first and most-recent fellows. One is Joe Fillingham, a 2011 fellow. Placed in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Cooperative Institutes, he termed his time as a Knauss Fellow as “transformative.”

“It changed my perspective on the world of science and how science is done and how science is managed and how science is funded. It really opened my eyes to what options and potential a career in science can have,” Fillingham said.

After the fellowship, Fillingham completed his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. He’s now the science lead at Wellntel, Inc., a Wisconsin startup company that offers groundwater monitoring equipment and data analysis tools.

The Knauss Fellowship was named for John A. Knauss in 1979 in honor of his leadership in developing the National Sea Grant College Program. Knauss was an oceanographer and former NOAA administrator. Well-versed in the ways of saltwater, Knauss was also a Great Lakes native son, hailing from Detroit and earning a master’s degree at the University of Michigan.

For 25 years, he headed an oceanography program at the University of Rhode Island, where he was exposed to legions of talented students—169 to be specific. Their successors in marine-science studies, and those from around the nation, now have the opportunity to apply for his namesake fellowship. That fellowship has also inspired a Wisconsin-ized version of fellowship opportunities.

Jennifer Hauxwell, Sea Grant’s assistant director for research and student engagement, oversees a robust effort offering invaluable learning and job training for a new generation of leaders. She forges partnerships with state agencies to offer fellowships for postgraduates that provide on-the-job education and training opportunities. Students have been placed in the Wisconsin Office of Coastal Management, the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

For more information about fellowship opportunities, see the Sea Grant website fellowships page: