January 1, 2013

Margaret S. Petersen, P.E., Hon.D.WRE, Dist.M.ASCE, a significant pioneer in hydraulics and water resources engineering passed away on January 18 at the age of 92. Ms. Petersen was elected as Honorary Member of ASCE in 1991 and an inaugural Honorary Diplomate of AAWRE in 2005 and has maintained a long and distinguished history of committee leadership within ASCE and EWRI. Ms. Petersen worked for 35 years on various projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, including a year on loan to the Special Engineering Division of the Panama Canal. During that period she served as a role model and mentor for other female water resources professionals.

Thereafter, she joined the University Of Arizona Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics where she taught, served as a graduate advisor, and authored two books on water resources planning and on river engineering. She is the author of more than 100 reports and papers and has contributed to numerous publications.

Taken from Ms. Petersen’s personal bio:

Margaret Petersen was born in Rock Island, Illinois in 1920. Living near the Mississippi River, she became aware of the river at an early age. Visiting the farm of her great aunt on Mississippi, she saw the river’s power as the farm flooded every spring. After graduating from high school in 1938, Petersen attended Augustana College in Rock Island for one full year and then part-time in the evening school until January 1943.She joined the Corps of Engineers in June 1942 and worked as a draftsman in the Rock Island District.

In the winter of 1942, she was selected as one of ten draftsman to go to Panama to complete contract drawings for the Three Locks Project. While in Panama, Petersen saved enough money to return to school. She attended the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa, earning a Bachelors Degree in Civil Engineering in January of 1947. She began her first job as a hydraulic engineer at the Waterways Experiment Station (WES) in Vicksburg in August of 1947 and thus became one of the pioneering women in the field of hydraulic engineering in the Corps of Engineer.

At WES she worked on data for the design and operation of the Mississippi Basin Model. Believing that she needed an advanced degree to better understand her work in hydraulics, Petersen returned to the University of Iowa in 1952 and received the Masters Degree in Mechanics and Hydraulics in 1953. After graduation, she worked as a hydraulic engineer at the Missouri River Division (MRD) in Omaha, Nebraska. She reviewed designs of spillways and other structures to insure that hydraulic functioning and operation fulfill requirements and intended uses. She also worked on various navigation and stabilization projects on the Missouri River.

Margaret Petersen wanted the experience of working at a district level, so she transferred to the Little Rock District in September 1955 There she worked in the hydraulic design section on river engineering, working on bank stabilization and channel rectification on the Arkansas River. In January 1961, she became Chief of the Channel Hydraulics Investigation Section. She was responsible for hydraulic studies related to the navigation channel on the Arkansas River, including stream reaches, the layout and design of the entrance channel on the lower White River, and the siting of navigation locks and dams on the Arkansas River to assure adequate navigation conditions. From Little Rock, Petersen returned to WES in Vicksburg in April 1964 to work as Chief of the Wave Dynamics Section. She was responsible for projects in coastal engineering relating to navigation problems in harbors, bays, and estuaries because of hurricane wind, wind tide, and hurricane-generated short-period waves.

In November 1964 Petersen transferred to the Sacramento District as a project engineer in the planning branch. Margaret Petersen worked on a series of projects and studies, such as the Morrison Creek Stream Group Project, the Sacramento River Shallow-draft Navigation Project, the deep-draft San Francisco Bay to Stockton Project, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta project for flood control. She was Chief of the Marysville Lake Investigations Section where she was responsible for planning the Marysville Lake multiple-purpose dam and reservoir, which was never built. Petersen retired from the Corps of Engineers Sacramento District in 1977.

In the fall of 1980, Petersen was appointed a visiting associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. While teaching, she developed four graduate-level courses in hydraulic engineering largely based on her personal experience with the Corps of Engineers. In 1987 the University of Iowa acknowledged Margaret Petersen’s many accomplishments when it awarded her its Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award. In 1990 she became only the second woman to be elected to Honorary Membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers.

She became Emerita Associate Professor in 1991. She has lectured in South Africa, China, and Morocco and done consulting work for many years. In 1997 she finally retired fully from her teaching responsibilities. Nonetheless, Petersen continues to be an invited lecturer around the world and to participate in the engineering profession to which she has contributed so much.

In 2010, The Environmental and Water Resource Institute (EWRI) announced the establishment of the Margaret Petersen Outstanding Woman of the Year Award to honor the life-long professional accomplishments of Ms. Petersen. Margaret’s commitment to the water resources profession and her active engagement with ASCE and EWRI serve as the founding principles for this award.

Jay Fredrich, a former student and long-time friend to Margaret:

“Fifty-one years ago I went to work as a student trainee in the Hydraulics Branch of the Corps of Engineers Little Rock District. More than I,000 employees of the District were involved in the planning and design work for the 15 locks and dams of the Arkansas River Navigation System to be located in the Little Rock District. Almost all of the student trainees assigned to the Hydraulics Branch spent at least a few weeks working under Margaret Petersen's supervision. There might have been a few of us who had heard that there were female civil engineers; maybe one or two of us had actually seen a female civil engineer; but none of us had ever worked for a female civil engineer (or even dreamed that we would!). We quickly learned, however, that working for Miss Petersen was going to be one of the most valuable educational experiences of our life. In those pre-computer days the laborious manual backwater and sedimentation calculations for hundreds of river miles made the textbook problems we grumbled about in our coursework seem like child's play, and Margaret insisted on levels of accuracy and degrees of neatness beyond anything we had experienced from our most demanding professors. She did the thinking, and her army of student trainees did the calculating (with our slide rules and mechanical calculators). Only Margaret knew that the work we were doing was at the cutting edge of American hydraulic engineering, but the day that Albert Einstein's son, Hans, came into our work area and spent several hours looking over the fruits of our labors and discussing with Margaret what we had done and what we needed to do next gave us an understanding that this work was not your run-of-the-mill engineering calculation. None of us knew what a giant of hydraulic engineering Hans Einstein was, but we all knew about his dad, and that was all we needed to know to understand that our work was special.

No one who worked with Margaret Petersen could fail to learn not only something about engineering, but also how to cope with a demanding workload and how to respond with grace and dignity to those who judged people on their gender rather than on the quality of their work. Working with her, even if only for a few weeks, instilled in all of us an appreciation for the importance of high-quality work and taught us that good engineering work trumps everything.

I never worked closely with Margaret again, but I had many opportunities to discuss with her our volunteer activities in ASCE, her work in planning when she was in the Sacramento District and I was at the Hydrologic Engineering Center and the Institute for Water Resources, and at the end of both of our careers when we were both teaching. When I was working on "Sons of Martha" and realized that I had dozens of stories about civil engineers and civil engineering projects, but that none of them even mentioned female civil engineers, I called Margaret and asked if she would write something for me about her career, so that there would be something in the book that might inspire a young woman reader to seek a career in civil engineering. She agreed to "try to write something," and one week before I had to deliver camera-ready copy to ASCE Press I received "It's Been a Richly Rewarding Life." It's the only piece in "Sons of Martha" that was commissioned specifically for the book and, in my judgement and in the judgement of many others who have talked to me about the book, it's the story that stands above all the others in explaining the rewards of a career in civil engineering.”

2013 EWRI President Peggy Johnson, who was mentored by Margaret reflected in her column in the EWRI Currents (upcoming spring) issue:

“On a personal level, Margaret has been a wonderful role model, mentor, and friend to me. Early in my career, she taught me a great deal about mentoring and using my position to help others. I have spent my career trying to pay forward her kindness and mentoring. She was a truly remarkable person who advanced hydraulic engineering practice and education and paved the way for many women in engineering. She will be missed.”

Kyle Schilling, a close friend and colleague stated:

“One of the most remarkable things about Margaret's career is her transition from a high level of practice to academia, recognizing the need for and writing two texts in the process. She was also an outstanding mentor bridging government and academia and was nominated for an OPAL Award in each category. She well deserved such recognition in each category and if there were an award for combined professional achievement would, in my thinking, have been the preeminent candidate. Our profession is stronger because of her contributions.”

Conrad Keyes, a friend and colleague of Margaret:

“From a very close Friend of Margaret – Margaret worked very hard at the CA Dept. of Water and at the U. of Arizona with the young engineers that just graduated or were to become graduates in the future. She always gave excellent lectures and presentations at the ASCE conferences and other engineering conferences. Margaret was always willing to help others.”

AAWRE founding member and long-time friend to Margaret, Jerry Rogers reflects:

“When I worked two summers with the U.S. Army Engineer District- Little Rock, Margaret Petersen was in the LRD Hydraulics Division there. At the time, little did I realize Margaret Petersen was or would become an active ASCE member in the National Executive Committee of the ASCE Hydraulics Division. I continued my graduate education at Arkansas and Northwestern University and lost track of Margaret. After graduating with a Ph.D., I became the National News Correspondent for the newly formed ASCE National Water Resources Planning and Management Division (WRPMD) and became an Executive Committee member of WRPMD. When EWRI was formed, I became a member of the EWRI Education and Research Council and Margaret had similar interests as a faculty member at the University of Arizona. Margaret came to many EWRI- ERC meetings. Margaret knew of my interest in engineering history and shared some ASCE Hydraulics Division files with me. Margaret had a deep concern for engineering education, students and history. Margaret became a member of the EWRI History and Heritage Committee and I saw her regularly at EWRI Congresses. I am truly glad to have known Margaret.

The Margaret Petersen Outstanding Woman of the Year Award was established in 2010 to honor the professional accomplishments of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Fellow Margaret Petersen, a female pioneer in hydraulics and water resources engineering. Many of us will miss Margaret Petersen.”

To read Dr. Curt Elmore’s tribute on EWRI Currents page
Read an interview with Margaret, courtesy of USACE in 1995
More info on Margaret Petersen Outstanding Woman of the Year Award