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Posted 5/6/2016

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By Robert Kidd

Nick Applegate emits a vibe of positive energy and strong, quiet purpose that may help explain how the Northern California native was named U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Planner of the Year.

“Nick repeatedly sees and contributes to a bigger picture than his particular discipline,” says Alicia Kirchner, Sacramento District chief of planning. “He understands the national context of each project and was key in attaining authorization for three major projects simultaneously.”

Applegate, chief of the economic and risk analysis section for the Corps’ Sacramento District, denies having any super powers.

“I was always good with numbers as a kid,” Applegate says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t necessarily say I enjoyed math; in fact, I hated my first calculus class.”

While Wall Street economists focus on money supply, interest rates and jobs data, Corps economists focus on keeping people safer from flooding and maximizing the value of water projects for the Nation.

This is especially true for the Sacramento District, where flood risk management is a primary focus, but Applegate and his Planning Division colleagues look for ways to include ecosystem restoration benefits whenever possible.

“More opportunities are coming along to find synergies between flood risk management and ecosystem restoration,” Applegate says. “We’re encouraged to examine broader solutions, so this is an exciting time.”

As mundane as the job sounds – staring at spreadsheets and running numerous computer simulations – the goal is significant: to decrease the flood risk for people.

“That’s where I really find great purpose in what we do here – it can save lives,” Applegate explains.

He can’t do it alone, though.

Working alongside specialists in hydrology, hydraulics, geotechnical engineering and project planners to compare alternative solutions, Applegate had some learning to do to understand how the pieces work together in an interwoven multidisciplinary approach.

“I wrote down everything I didn’t know and went back to my departmental leader and mentor,” Applegate recalls. “I’m still learning things every day and I’ve been doing it for almost 10 years.”

As a section chief, he now enjoys the opportunity to serve as a mentor, helping economists and planners who’ve recently joined the Corps.

Working in a field called ‘risk analysis’ carries a fair amount of weight. It has also created chances to do some really fun things with the Corps.

From 2014 to 2015, Applegate worked with a team from Brazil to help accelerate their flood risk management efforts and make them more aware of the potential for environmental synergies in such efforts.

“That opportunity offered me as much personal growth as professional growth,” says Applegate. “I met some great people while in Brazil, and was able to experience their culture.”

Temporary detail assignments aren’t uncommon within the Corps, and Applegate says the opportunity can be worthwhile.

“I guess you could just be stuck in a cubicle if you wanted to be,” says Applegate. “But, if you’re proactive and want to take on meaningful and exciting challenges, the possibilities abound with the Corps.”

“How people react to a challenge shows a lot about them.”

Corps of Engineers economic risk analysis flooding planning sacramento district U.S. Army