VICKSBURG, Miss., -- A noteworthy but humble figure exited the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Environmental Laboratory for the last time, February 28, 2020.
Dr. Alfred Cofrancesco, Jr. retired from his position as senior scientific technical manager and director of the Civil Works environmental research area for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The magnitude of the research programs developed under his leadership and the breadth of environmental research that ERDC is doing are likely his greatest legacies. Cofrancesco’s career illustrates how marrying technical expertise with relationship-building skills can bring success for the individual, the team and the organization.
“The biggest challenges I tackled in CW are the annual budget funding cycles and building relationships to help you out with that,” he explained. “If I had to put it all into one perspective, I think I’m most proud of the relationships I helped to build between the ERDC, Headquarters and the scientific community at large.”
Cofrancesco oversaw several research programs during his 13-year tenure in the ERDC’s Environmental Laboratory technical director’s office, including the Water Operations Technical Support program as well as the Aquatic Nuisance Species, the Aquatic Plant Control Research, the Recreation Management Support, the Wetlands Regulatory Assistance and the Ecosystem Management and Restoration Programs.
One of the best ways to convey how these initiatives flourished under his direction is to describe how much their funding increased. “EMRRP was about $900k ⸺ it’s about $6.5 million now; ANSRRP started at $1 million, and this year we have $16 million in the program,” he said. “APCRP is always zeroed out in the initial budget, but we have a lot of congressional support, and we’re at $5 million there ⸺ that’s all building relationships, working for sponsors, working for people and having them support us, and we’re supporting what they need.”
At his retirement ceremony, ERDC Deputy Director and former Environmental Laboratory Director Dr. Beth Fleming said there was a point when the APCRP was really suffering. She described Cofrancesco as having a tireless work ethic to turn the program around, coming into her office every day when she was EL director to strategize.
“Every bit of his success involved doing whatever it took to make it happen; sometimes it was working over the weekend, sometimes staying until late at night,” Fleming said. “He would say it wasn’t him, though.”
ERDC director Dr. David Pittman described Cofrancesco as world-class, saying, “I don’t know how you did it all, man.”
Cofrancesco pointed to his wife, Debbie, and said simply, “Support.”
The former entomologist found a lot to be inspired about at ERDC. Going back to his research on the bench, he said that working with biocontrol agents amazed him at first. “The flea beetle that controlled invasive alligator weed by bringing natural pressures to bear on the weed devastated it, and that was ‘an aha moment’,” he said.
Cofrancesco also felt the researchers have an energy when they do their work that he was able to see in the products being developed.
He was intrigued recently by the concept one team advanced that there are quantifiable goods and services derived from the ecosystem, and there needed to be a rigorous methodology to effectively account for them. “We are on the cusp right now of having the Corps take the framework this team built and integrating it into the planning process,” he said. “Once that happens, the Corps is going to be able to justify ecosystem restoration activities in a much clearer way.”
When asked what he will miss most about his work, Cofrancesco said that it would likely be interacting with the ecosystem restoration and invasive species researchers throughout the world. He predicted it was unlikely that he would interact with researchers “in New Zealand, Europe, or wherever else” on as much a regular basis as he currently does.
“I chair the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Working Group for Biological Control Agents of Weeds,” he noted. “And I’ve been with that organization since 1987 and have seen it under various names at various stages, and every biocontrol agent that is released in the U.S. goes through that organization’s review process, and you build up a very good camaraderie with the community, and I’ll miss that.”
As an example of the kind of light-hearted fellowship Cofrancesco was known for building, Pittman described an occasion when the senior scientific technical manager gave former USACE Director of Civil Works James Dalton a pair of shoes made of harmful algal blooms.
Cofrancesco felt he owed his success to others, as Fleming predicted. “I have to say that my success in the TD’s shop has been due to the nucleus of people in my organization, the five program managers and two support personnel,” he concluded. “They are the only reason that I’ve been successful: Dr. Linda Nelson, Sally Stroupe, Dr. Trudy Estes, Tony Friona, Sherri Whitaker, Janet Scallions, and now Carrie Callender and Kyle Gordon. They’ve all been super, as were the people who came before them, Glenn Rhett and Bob Gunkel.”