Dr. Jack Fowler, who died on July 7 at his home in Vicksburg, Mississippi, was still working on projects at age 80.
Since earning his Ph.D. in 1979 with a dissertation describing the use of geotextile to stabilize the base of a berm in Mobile Bay, Alabama, his ideas and innovations have led the way in the industry for the use of geotextiles in dredging, coastal engineering and environmental applications.
The new technology had its naysayers, and Fowler and other engineers at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station (WES – now the Engineering Research and Development Center – ERDC) who had studied geotextile fabric and knew its possibilities had a job convincing project owners that it was a viable alternative to traditional ways. Fowler had a strong vision of the possibilities of using geotextiles for dewatering and containing dredged material.
Many applications that are standard in geotextile use today were Fowler’s innovations, including covering sand berms with geotextile to protect against erosion and wave action, pumping dredged material into geotextile tubes to create protective berms on coastlines, river banks, and dredged material containment areas, pumping slurry into tubes to dewater the slurry, stabilizing contaminated material by pumping it into tubes to dewater and safely contain it, to name only a few of his innovations.
Dana Toups, geotextile expert who worked with Fowler beginning in his student days, provided a Google search on “geotextile tubes,” which came up with hundreds of photos of applications. He said, “I don’t think much of this would exist without Jack.”
Fowler was a native of Vicksburg who earned a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering with an emphasis in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of Mississippi in February 1961. He received a Master of Science from Mississippi State University in January 1972, and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University in July 1979, where he studied under Dr. Allen Haliburton, who had first come up with the idea of applying “filter cloths” to dredging applications. The WES Soils Laboratory, which later became the Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory, was working on testing the new geotextile materials in airfield and road subsurface drainage systems, and Fowler was one of the engineers who focused his interest on dredging applications.
His advanced degrees were earned while he was employed at WES. His doctoral dissertation was his report on a Corps project he led to create a 6,000-foot-long test section of an 8-foot dike to contain dredged material at Pinto Pass in Mobile Bay, Alabama. Fowler was the project engineer. This was an early use of geotextile in marine structures and involved placement of geotextile sewn to form one continuous sheet separating the soft berm material to provide reinforcement to maintain the embankment in a coherent mass and supported its weight until consolidation of the foundation materials could occur.
Toups was with geotextile manufacturer Nicolon Corporation (now TenCate) at the time and worked with Fowler on this project, providing installation recommendations. Toups describes the early days of geotextile applications as contentious, with permission to use the new technology hard won in many cases.
RED EYE CROSSING
In April 1994, Fowler led one the first applications in the United States to create a contraction dike out of filled geotextile tubes to control erosion in a Mississippi River bend, at Red Eye Crossing two miles south of Baton Rouge. The Corps of Engineers had placed rock structures for this purpose in many river bends in the lower Mississippi River, but the river shipping industry was concerned about the safety hazard posed by these hard structures. Dr. Fowler’s idea of using soft-core geotextile containers was approved, and the project was built, creating 7,000 feet of underwater dikes. Three dikes were constructed using geotextile containers and three dikes were made from sandbags filled with river-dredged sand. Six sub-aqueous dikes varying in length from 500 to 1,800 feet and a maximum height of 30 feet were constructed by placing 556 containers from split hull bottom dump barges. Over 38,000 bags were dropped from flat top barges using front end loaders.
The Corps had been spending over $3 million a year maintaining the Red Eye crossing, but the dikes reduced the need for maintenance at Red Eye for a cost/benefit ratio that was achieved in two years. Total cost of construction was $6 million.
He left the Corps on September 29, 1994.
Along with his wife Sandra, Dr. Fowler formed Geotec Associates on October 1, 1994. They provided engineering and installation of textiles in geotechnical, hydraulic and coastal applications. Sandra ran the business end, including ordering and managing delivery of the geotextile tubes, working closely with Industrial Fabrics, which became a de facto team member providing fabric for the projects. Clients were from both the U.S. and overseas.
Sandra said “He always did the same thing in the geotechnical engineering area that he did with WES, working with some of the same people he worked with throughout his career plus new clients. He had lots of contacts through WEDA. He gave speeches at the meetings and this generated business. We added the selling of the geotextile tubes to the business in addition to Jack’s engineering consulting.”
In November and December 1994, Dr. Fowler oversaw the pioneer project to contain contaminated material in geotextile containers.
The project was for the Port of Los Angeles (POLA), to safely contain approximately 55,000 cubic yards of contaminated material dredged from the Marina Del Rey entrance channel and the Ballona Flood Control Channel. The sandy maintenance material contained 7 to 8 percent fine-grained material contaminated with lead, zinc and copper. The material was dredged by clamshell and placed in geotextile containers, which were sewn closed, dewatered and placed by bottom dump barge in POLA’s Shallow Water Habitat Confined Aquatic Disposal site, then capped with a clean sand layer.
Dean Wickoren describes his role as “Jack’s tube filler,” the dredging expert who provided the dredges, operators and expertise to fill the tubes. He recalls the first time geotextile tubes were used primarily to dewater fine slurry.
FIRST DEWATERING APPLICATION
The berms of an in-water dredged material placement area of fine-grained material near Port Lavaca, Texas, had eroded, and the area was under water. A solution was needed immediately.
“Jack figured he could circle it with tubes and asked me to put a small dredge inside the placement area and pump into the tubes to top off the dikes. We were pumping pea soup, and were watching water drain out of the tubes, leaving the fine material in the tubes,” said Wickoren. “This started the practice of using tubes to dewater slurry,” he said. Now in some project specifications, “geostyle tubes” are the only type of dewatering method considered.
“Prior to that, the only other method besides settling ponds was filter presses, which took three times longer than filling tubes. Jack understood the problem and the solution,” Wickoren continued. “But he was laughed at, fought and kicked through the whole thing.”
Ronald Vann, who was chief of operations at the Corps Norfolk District, said, “Jack was a good friend and I worked closely with him on projects in the Norfolk District and districts throughout the country. Jack had a can-do attitude and was very innovative in using his knowledge and skills to solve problems, while having a great time. He was fun.”
Vann recalled Fowler’s plan to create 4 miles of cross dikes made of geotextile tubes to divide the Norfolk District’s Craney Island Dredged Material Placement Site into three parts, allowing for drying and management of the dredged material.
“This more than doubled the life of Craney Island and has been documented to save billions of dollars,” Vann said.
“Jack, T. D. Woodward and I co-invented the Telescoping Weir, which enhanced the ability to manage the quality of placement site discharge water and to increase drying of the dredged material. Jack supervised the construction of a small prototype of the weir at WES and later assisted in manufacture of full size weirs. He was instrumental in the installation of the telescoping weirs at Craney Island, Poplar Island and at Mobile,” said Vann, adding that Fowler was active with field reviews for Corps dredging research.
The ERDC library contains 70 reports on the use of geotextile fabrics and soil stability that Fowler authored or co-authored during his career with the Corps.
The Geotec Associates website – geotec.biz – contains written reports and PowerPoint slides of his major projects, as well as titles of the court cases he appeared in as an expert witness.
He was a regular presenter at the annual Texas A&M Dredging Short Course every January.
Fowler was a member of professional engineering organization SAME, PIANC, WEDA, ASCE and Chi Epsilon honorary engineering fraternity. He served one year in the U.S. Naval Reserves and six years in the U.S. Army Reserves. He was an active member of the National Association of Retired and Active Federal Employees (NARFE), the Elks Lodge, and a former member of the Vicksburg Army-Navy Club.
His family, friends and colleagues gathered in Vicksburg on July 16 for a visitation and service, where many friends shared their memories of their times with Fowler. He had donated his body for research, so there was no funeral or burial.