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The Little Engine That Could – Rosemary Reilly — retires after four decades

Rose Reilly, lead aquatic biologist for Pittsburgh District’s Water Quality Unit, is recognized by Pittsburgh District Commander Col. Adam Czekanski for her service to the corps. Reilly retired after a landmark 43-year career with the Corps of Engineers and earned numerous awards, built key partnerships and innovated nationally-recognized water quality tools for biologists everywhere along the way (U.S. Army photo by Rose Reilly).

Posted on November 17, 2021

After 43 years, Rosemary Reilly is marking the end of an era.

Reilly, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District’s Water Quality Unit lead, is closing out a landmark career that spanned more than four decades, earned numerous awards, built key partnerships, and served 18 district commanders.

She began her career in 1978 as a biologist aid in the district’s Hydrology and Hydraulics Branch and would eventually lead the Water Quality Unit. Biologists in that unit perform duties key to accomplishing the district’s mission, including sampling water quality conditions within the region’s watershed covering more than 26,000 square miles in five states.

While water quality is not the most-discussed function the corps provides, water quality engineers perform functions crucial to the district’s mission.

“In the spring, we visit every project and sample the water to understand impacts and changes in the watershed,” said Amy Jensen, an aquatic biologist in the district’s Water Quality Unit. “Through physical, chemical and biological sampling, we can find important changes like if there are harmful algae blooms and inform our reservoir operations to keep everyone safe.”

The data Jensen is referring to is a part of a major accomplishment of Reilly’s while serving the district. Throughout her career, she assembled a cutting-edge database that tracked water quality trends and information to improve how the district accomplished environmental missions.

Reilly directed the development of software for data input, a standardized macroinvertebrate report including calculations for biological indices and customized plots for statistical data trend analyses. Her work benefited not only the district’s data users and other similar resource agencies, but also numerous water suppliers, researchers, consultants, watershed associates and other organizations dependent on upper Ohio River watershed quality data.

“Whether it’s turbidity, dissolved oxygen or the overall quality, Rose set up a database to track all these different features,” said Jessa Farmer, the chief of the Geotechnical & Water Resources Branch. “She was passionate about making sure we got out there to sample these features and test them. People throughout the nation look to her work as an example for how to build important catalogs like this.”

While creating this cutting-edge database stands out as one of Reilly’s many accomplishments, she excelled in another crucial area: partnerships.

According to Farmer, Reilly invested a lot of work into the corps’ relationships with other agencies and organizations, such as by serving on the National Water Quality Committee, partnering with the Nature Conservancy and PA Fish and Boat committee, and establishing a strong relationship with the Seneca Nation of Indians.

“The Seneca Nation really sees her as an advocate and a friend,” said Farmer. “She invested a lot into creating partnerships with state, federal and local resource management agencies, both within the district and nationally. She put a lot of emphasis on maintaining those relationships.”

Reilly accomplished all this while facing a different type of challenge – having to build the Water Quality Unit from the ground up.

In 2006, Reilly was the sole aquatic biologist doing water quality work for the district. By 2020, Reilly had built her team from one person to five, but she did not get the job done without help.

“For six years, she was out there like, the little engine that could collecting a ton of samples from every reservoir,” said Jensen. “She relied on project staff to help her get the Water Quality Unit to where it is now, and I think she’s set our program on an amazing trajectory.”

Despite retiring from the district, Reilly is still involved in water quality. She is currently working with Jensen on the Sustainable Rivers Program (SRP), which tracks natural river flows and storm pulses to inform how dams can operate more ecologically and environmentally friendly.

Most of all, district personnel will miss working with Reilly.

“She was incredibly patient,” said Kyle Kaminski, the district’s Water Resources Section Chief. “Anytime I had a question about water quality, she would sit down and walk me through every question I had. She was so passionate about her work.”

“The first thing that comes to mind about Rose is how much she cared,” said Farmer. “She had this great understanding of water quality within the district and had this ingenuity about what we could do for the water quality mission. It was pretty amazing.”

Pittsburgh District thanks Rose Reilly for her 43 years of hard work, passion and expertise. We wish her well on her journey forward.


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