The survey boat rounded the Point of Pittsburgh on a cold, cloudy December day. At the helm was George Brkovich, Jr., a waterways inspector, on his last day working on the water. With the distinctive Pittsburgh skyline to his port side, he was asked if it felt like a victory lap.
“Yeah, sorta,” Brkovich humbly replied.
After 40 combined years of federal service in the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Brkovich is retiring.
Brkovich spent much of his early life and career in southwestern Pennsylvania. He grew up in an Italian and Croatian family in Elizabeth Township, south of Pittsburgh, and graduated from Elizabeth Forward High School.
His family name (pronounced BURK-o-vitch) is frequently misspelled and mispronounced, and because of this, his father gave him permission to legally add a vowel if he wanted. However, Brkovich kept the traditional Croatian spelling.
After high school, Brkovich moved to California where he later enlisted in the Coast Guard.
It was the beginning of his 20 years of uniformed service. Unlike other military branches, the Coast Guard serves a law enforcement role.
In 1979, George was fresh out of boot camp ready for his first assignment, on the United States Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Bramble (WLB-392).
The crew broke ice on Lake Huron and maintained aids to navigation, such as buoys larger than those found on inland waterways.
Brkovich’s next assignment led him back to California on the USCGC Venturous (WMEC-625) where he was a 3rd class boatswain mate. This vessel traveled up and down the Pacific coast in search and rescue, and law enforcement. Along the Alaskan coast, they enforced fishing regulations and monitored international fishermen operating nearby.
He later worked similar roles on vessels in Bodega Bay, California before returning home to Pennsylvania, but his service to the Coast Guard was not over. In Sewickley, aboard the USCGC Osage, Brkovich and his crewmates tended navigational aids along the rivers.
His final Coast Guard assignments brought him closer to a career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
His final Coast Guard assignments were in Marine Safety Unit (MSU) offices, first in Huntington, West Virginia, and then in Pittsburgh. The passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, precipitated by the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident, increased enforcement activity. Additionally, the ongoing problem of barge breakaway events led to prevention and planning meetings with industry.
“At this point, I was a walking resume,” Brkovich remarked.
After retiring, Brkovich was ready for new work and joined the Pittsburgh District’s regulatory division in 2002. He and another inspector were in the field, either on a boat or on the road daily.
The work involved checking permitting compliance, helping the public with permits, patrolling the rivers, and inspecting wetland delineations made prior to a project’s construction.
Soon after his new career began, the district became part of a workforce restructuring, known as a Reduction in Force (RIF).
“The RIF did not do anything good. I hope the district never sees that again,” George said cheerlessly, as he described the losses of personnel and programs, as well as his own job. It also stopped the opportunity for the Corps to acquire a surplus boat from the Coast Guard.
To stay employed with the district, George transferred to a new position as an operator at Dashields Locks and Dam.
Around 2006, after the RIF, the district’s Regulatory Division needed a waterways inspector. Brkovich returned to that division, but the program had changed. With only one waterways inspector, he was in the office much more than before.
In the final five years of his employment with the corps, Brkovich supported the district hydrographic survey program and water quality program as the boat operator.
Huntington District formerly performed many of the hydrographic surveys within Pittsburgh District’s boundary, and he and former surveyor Jeff Jalbrzikowski initiated the current in-house survey program.
However, the district’s survey boat’s sonar equipment was not sufficient for the task.
Regulatory Division and Engineering and Construction Division’s geospatial section invested in equipment and training necessary to collect sonar data. This data is used to assess conditions before and after dredging operations, search for underwater hazards, and monitor conditions to ensure the 9-foot navigation channel is maintained through Pittsburgh’s inland system.
Brkovich’s counterpart on the water, Brett Kelly, is a geographer in the Engineering and Construction Division’s geospatial section.
“Brett and I have been up and down these rivers many times,” George said.
The duo worked together by following a track up and down the river from one bank to another. Brkovich operated the boat with Kelly’s technical guidance, ensuring overlapping swaths of sonar data for a complete dataset. They compared the hydrographic survey process to mowing a lawn.
The hydrographic survey work has proven rewarding despite the challenges, Brkovich said. Brkovich and Kelly have collected survey data in almost every type of weather. It was a sense of accomplishment for both. Brkovich reminds people of Pittsburgh’s volatile weather whenever they tell him how lucky he is to work on a boat every day.
“Welcome to underway days,” Brkovich laughed on the misty morning as he and Kelly lowered the boat into the river. In an example of Murphy’s Law, it seems like the first day of any survey job has the worst weather.
On his final day as a boat operator, the crew locked through four times – once at Allegheny River Lock and Dam 2, and the rest at the lower Monongahela River locks.
The 26-foot boat, dwarfed by even the smallest Pittsburgh District lock, must tie close to the lock wall for safety during each lockage. The massive chamber takes some time to fill or drain, leading to a few minutes of conversation between the boat and lock operators.
“This is probably gonna be the last time you’ll see me through here,” Brkovich said to each lock operator as the water slowly raised or dropped. Each lock tender wished him well on his retirement.
“The locks and dams have always treated me like royalty,” Brkovich praised.
Unlike many retirees, Brkovich does not seek to own a boat. Instead, he plans to golf, babysit his grandchild, and possibly travel to one of the countries of his heritage -- Italy.
Looking back at his career, Brkovich said, “Things aren’t always gonna work out the way you expected, but the people make all the difference.”