Hydraulic engineer expands focus from infrastructure to public-health concerns
The rivers and lush greenery of Montgomery, Ala., were the backdrop to Professor Neil Grigg’s childhood. Growing up fishing along the banks of the Alabama River, Grigg also witnessed how heavy rain and flash flooding could devastate structures and drive out families, changing a community forever.
That was the start of his lifelong passion for protecting water resources, civil infrastructure, and, ultimately, the people who rely on water systems. A hydraulic engineer by training, Grigg is a wellspring of critical knowledge as the world’s population booms and climate change drives both water scarcity and extreme weather events that test aging infrastructure. During his career as a University researcher and educator, Grigg has become a public-health expert on water is- sues that are intensifying on a roiling planet.
His quiet southern drawl gives him away, yet Grigg has made Northern Colorado his home for nearly four decades. He fell in love with Fort Collins and Colorado State University in 1967, arriving as a graduate student and receiving his Ph.D. in hydraulic engineering in 1969 from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Except for two stints away, Grigg has made CSU his professional home; he’s been a faculty member in civil and environmental engineering since 1982. With an expertise in water infrastructure and engineering, he’s the author of more than 350 publications and several books, and he teaches courses in water resources, utility management, and pipelines.
Grigg’s influence is appreciated worldwide, Charles Shackelford, department chair, said.
“Neil’s almost half-century of experience in water resources and infrastructure management includes his numerous connections with individuals who attained their graduate degrees from the department and serve in leading water positions around the world,” Shackelford said. “Neil has contributed significantly to the department’s continued strong national and international reputation in water resources.”
When it comes to water, Grigg has dabbled in a little of every- thing: public-agency leadership, public works, river-basin planning. Earlier in his career, Grigg had a straightforward focus on hydraulic engineering. He worked on technical problems related to flooding, transportation of water, and water quality. More recently, he has expanded into broad water concerns often fraught with political, financial, social, legal, and human-rights complexities.
“The same kinds of things you see in the political landscape in subjects like health and housing, you see in water,” Grigg noted. “How do you have water equity? How do you finance it? How do you overcome the legacy of aging infrastructure? We have lots of technical answers, but no solutions for these other things. I’ve transformed myself into someone who studies those bigger, broader issues.”
Indeed, Grigg is involved in large-scale urban planning – collaborating, for instance, with transportation and electric-grid experts on a project that would improve overall emergency preparedness in extreme flooding conditions. The urgent need for integrated planning has become clear amid recent natural disasters, including Hurricane Harvey, which in Summer 2017 severely disrupted Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
In an explanatory column about flooding after Hurricane Harvey, Grigg succinctly describes how the failure of Houston’s water infra- structure triggered a cascade of public-health emergencies, including initial rescue and recovery, a desperate need for potable water, a “toxic soup” of pollutants and pathogens carried through the city, the residual effects of mosquito-borne diseases, an overtaxed health care system, and concerns about access to services among the poor and elderly.
“What can be done to alleviate future suffering from such massive events?” he asked, signaling the integrated approach of a water engineer concerned about the big picture.
Grigg collaborates on projects through a variety of University initiatives, including the CSU Urban Water Center. He also is an adjunct professor in the Colorado School of Public Health, a joint effort of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, the University of Northern Colorado, and Colorado State University.
Grigg’s focus has broadened, yet he remains motivated to provide solutions to real problems based on science, facts, and rational understanding – “and,” he said, “to have those solutions accepted in this chaotic world.”