Civil Engineering Alum Making Waves

It was as a student at Cal Poly that Ben Nielsen (Civil Engineering, ’05) first discovered the joys of surfing, without knowing he was already getting his feet wet in his future career. Now living and working in Denver, Nielsen may be far from the ocean, but he’s making waves — that’s his job. As the project engineer for McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group (a division of Merrick & Co.), he designs and engineers river projects with recreational whitewater, including the Boise River Park “which was ground zero for river surfing projects in America,” he said. 

“The recent explosion of river surfing has required a totally fresh approach to wave design,” said Nielsen, “and that’s where Learn by Doing kicks in: Surfing requires a much higher-performing wave, and our wave designs are an innovative application of fluid dynamics theory, with no manual or criteria to draw from.”

The projects are known not only for their innovative “pure wave” hydraulic jump engineering but also for design that complements the river environment.

“Our focus is urban river revitalization,” said Nielsen. “There’s been a huge push throughout the nation to re-engage these rivers and enhance them for people and the environment.  Most of the features we design, such as the South Platte River Run project near Denver, are integrated into other infrastructure and perform multiple objectives such as diversions, river stabilization, fish passage and flood control.” 

A presenter at many U.S. and international conferences on various topics related to river recreation design, Nielsen recently spoke on the future of river surfing wave design at the prestigious Forum Flusswellen in Germany.

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