Robert Gearheart
Arcata, California

Robert Gearheart is an exceptional biologist, engineer, and educator who has dedicated his 40-year career to understanding biogeochemical cycles of wetland systems and how those processes can be leveraged to transform waste to a resource. Throughout his career, Dr. Gearheart served as: 1) an educator, 2) a researcher, 3) a scientific communicator and advocate for appropriate development, and 4) a design engineer implementing full-scale projects. Robert Gearheart is an emeritus professor of environmental engineering at Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA. Dr. Gearheart taught courses in water quality and chemistry, environmental impact, and wastewater and drinking water treatment for 35 years. He has inspired 100’s of students through his teaching and research on the use of wetlands for wastewater treatment and pollution abatement and the ancillary benefits that this sustainable technology brings to communities. He brought a unique perspective and knowledge on the design of engineered natural treatment systems (specifically constructed wetlands) to the engineering program – infusing a biological perspective that became a program strength and continues today. His teaching and mentorship has influenced 100’s of engineering graduates to consider wetland systems in their design for water treatment. For the past 40 years, Dr. Gearheart has spearheaded groundbreaking research on the use of constructed wetlands for stormwater and wastewater treatment. In 1975, the State and regional government of California proposed a new wastewater treatment plant to serve the three largest populated communities in Humboldt County. Gearheart and his colleagues countered with an innovative solution of a constructed wetland to treat the wastewater, followed by a discharge to Humboldt Bay. Dr. Gearheart argued this alternative had a lower capital and operating cost, was more reliable, used less energy, provided numerous educational and recreational opportunities for Arcata, and enhanced the beneficial uses of Humboldt Bay. He played a pioneering role in interfacing between state and regional politicians and regulators with water quality control boards, and wastewater professionals to pave the way for 40 acres of degraded wetlands to be restored and used as a natural treatment system. He is a founding designer of the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary (AM&WS) in Arcata, California that now serves as a wastewater treatment plant, a recreation area, and a wildlife sanctuary. The AM&WS includes 307 acres of freshwater marshes, salt marsh with tidal slough, grassy uplands, tidal mudflats, brackish marsh, 5.4 miles of walking and biking paths and an Interpretive Center that serve over 200,000 visitors every year. The AM&WS is an international model of successful wastewater reuse and wetland restoration and Dr. Gearheart hosts dozens of scientific visitors each year who come to learn more about the system. As the director of the Arcata Marsh Research Institute (AMRI), Dr. Gearheart has continued his research efforts, focusing on understanding the biogeochemical cycles and hydraulics of wetland systems, quantifying the ecosystem benefits of our wetlands, and exploring operational management strategies to improve both BOD reduction and nutrient removal while dealing with the internal load resulting from 35 years of full scale operation of the system. Dr. Gearheart has always been concerned about passing on the knowledge he has learned from his research activities to others. With over 100 technical reports, presentations, and guest lectures, he has freely shared his experience with others, promoting the value of wetlands. He has been the advisor for dozens of senior and graduate projects and theses, and continues his mentoring of students even after retiring from the university. Dr. Gearheart developed and taught a constructed wetland short course for seven years that was attended by several hundred professionals. The course provided ~30 hours of training on the use of free surface constructed wetlands for treatment of wastewater. The course was intended for design engineers and wetland scientists who were interested in the planning, design and management of wetlands for wastewater treatment and pollution abatement. He has consulted on treatment wetland systems world-wide including systems in Mexico, Sierra Leone, Ghana, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Gaza and systems throughout the western US. In Arizona, Robert Gearheart has led the design of an innovative wetland to treat excess nitrogen for Apache Nitrogen Products and has been actively working in the Klamath River watershed for 25 years. Robert Gearheart has spent his 40 plus year career dedicated to understanding wetland systems and sharing his unique perspective and passion with a multitude of students and practitioners. He inspires a commitment to sustainability and a scientific approach to understand our natural wetlands systems based on integrity. He has been incredibly generous with sharing his knowledge, and has inspired two generations of engineers, scientists, and decision makers to appreciate the ecological value of wetlands, and how their multitude of layered beneficial uses can provide low-cost, reliable treatment of stormwater and wastewater, wildlife habitat, and a myriad of active and passive recreational activities for communities worldwide.