Peter Goodwin has spent much of his career engineering ways to restore salmon populations in dammed Pacific Northwest rivers or analyzing the downstream effects of water supply management decisions in drought-stressed California.
The closest the University of Idaho professor has come to studying the Chesapeake Bay was on the opposite site of the Delmarva Peninsula, exploring how to restore Delaware Bay marshes disrupted by man-made dikes and ditches.
Starting on Monday, however, the nation's largest estuary will be his focus. Goodwin will take over the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, home to the preeminent research on the state's most significant natural resource. He replaces the current president, Donald Boesch, who has led the center since 1990.
The leadership transition comes as environmentalists hope the bay has turned a corner in reversing decades of pollution and overharvesting of crabs and oysters, and that a more hands-off approach by regulators doesn't stall progress. Both Boesch and Goodwin acknowledge that the job is as much political as it is scientific.
"I know I'm going to be on a very steep learning curve," Goodwin said. "Specifically relative to the Chesapeake Bay, I know actually very little about that, but what I do bring is extensive experience from other systems in the U.S. and around the world."
University System of Maryland officials say they see that unfamiliarity as a strength.
"It wasn't my first impression this was the perfect fit — you don't think of Idaho, since it's not coastal, as having the same kind of emphasis we have had at UMCES on the bay," said Robert Caret, the university system's chancellor. "He just had a broad background that encompassed everything we were looking for."
That included a global perspective, leadership skills and scientific curiosity, Caret said.
UMCES, nearly a century old, is actually composed of four research centers around the state, with 100 faculty members and about 85 graduate students.
Its Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge and Chesapeake Biological Laboratory on Solomons Island are home to the institution's well-known research on fisheries, water quality and the chemistry and biology of estuarine ecosystems. The Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg adds investigations into management of terrestrial wildlife, forests and agriculture, and the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore explores microbiology, molecular biology and biotechnology.
Goodwin's background leans toward engineering — specifically, a field known as ecohydraulics. The term, coined in the late 1980s, combines the study of aquatic animals and plants with analysis of the waters they're swimming and floating in. The work informs operation, construction and even removal of dams and man-made reservoirs.
Goodwin has been a leading voice applying the discipline to debates mostly in the western U.S. He served as lead scientist for a group overseeing management of the water supply that comes through the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, an estuary in northern California that is tapped to fill pipes and irrigation ditches in homes and farms across the state. Some of his other projects have explored flood prevention, sediment control and fishery management in places such as Idaho's Red River, the Columbia River in Oregon and the Tijuana estuary in Southern California.
While those waterways may differ from the Chesapeake ecologically, they share similar challenges — they are a long way from becoming truly restored, and restoration efforts are complicated by politics. Goodwin's understanding of such thorny debates means he won't be in altogether unfamiliar terrain when he arrives in Maryland, Boesch said.
"He's very practically minded," Boesch said of his successor. "He's not inexperienced and naive."
Boesch said he plans to stay on the center's faculty into 2018, introducing Goodwin to the major players and policy debates in Annapolis. After that, he plans to write one or more books intended for a general audience about the ecology of the Chesapeake and the Gulf of Mexico.
Boesch will be handing over a position that influences a broad range of state programs and policies. He serves or has served on state committees that oversee management of the bay's oyster and crab populations, preparations for climate change, prevention of harmful algal blooms in waterways and responses to invasion by species like snakehead fish. He also held positions on advisory panels outside Maryland, including a federal commission created by the Obama administration to prevent or lessen the damage of oil spills.
Goodwin said he admires the way Boesch has maintained his identity as an impartial scientist while educating and advising politicians. He described himself as embracing a similar philosophy — one in which a scientist's role is as an "honest broker" who doesn't shy away from sharing controversial research but also doesn't tell policymakers what to do with the information.
"Scientists are trained not to believe in anything — they're trained to question things," Goodwin said. "It's important to understand where science stops and where the decisions are made."
Goodwin was attracted to UMCES because its independence and organization are unusual among similar research efforts around the country. Many centers are housed within larger universities, or are staffed by researchers spread across multiple departments or institutions. The distinction helps give UMCES a level of authority and credibility in policy debates that it might not otherwise have, Goodwin said.
"You've got an entire independent institution set up to design the science to inform policy and management actions," he said. "Having that core focal expertise to build on is pretty unique. I've not seen that in any of the other large ecosystem restoration projects around the country."
Boesch said he's confident things won't change under Goodwin given the priority the university system's regents gave to finding a successor.
"Without hesitation, they said, 'Let's move forward and get a new president,'" Boesch said. "I think that's a good sign."
If anything, university system officials appear interested in strengthening the institution. Caret said he hopes to see Goodwin broaden the funding sources UMCES taps for its research so it's less susceptible to state and federal funding cuts.
"I'm really coming in here to learn — to understand what the issues are and perhaps give independent, outside perspective," he said.
While Boesch acknowledged Goodwin's background might make his appointment seem unorthodox, he said he trusts his successor's experience will help him navigate the institution forward.
"The times change and you need fresh perspective and a new generation of leaders," Boesch said.