Bigger, better model of Mississippi River to be built

Construction on a new physical model of the Mississippi River at LSU should begin this spring and be operational for research and education by the summer of 2014, according to state officials.

The model will be much larger, more detailed and provide more reliable results than one used by the university and other researchers since late 2003, said Garret Graves, executive assistant to the Governor for Coastal Activities.

The state is paying for the majority of the $12 million project through federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program money, Graves said, and the project will in part cover the cost-share that the state has with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for an ongoing study of the river and delta.

Unlike computer models, the physical model is an actual physical representation of the Mississippi River from Donaldsonville to the mouth of the river that allows researchers to test different scenarios along the river such as sediment diversions for coastal restoration.

The new model will be housed at the same location of the old model along River Road just north of the Veterinarian school building at LSU, and will include educational exhibits, classrooms and office space.

Not only will the new model be larger, its scale will allow finer details to be seen in the research results, said Clinton Willson, professor and graduate adviser with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at LSU.

In addition, since the model is so much larger than what researchers have been working with, he said, everything will now be automated — from the water flow to the amount of sediment that is added to the river system.

“We’re not going to be adding sediment by hand anymore,” he said.

Even with the better information, Willson said, it’s important not to oversell what scientists can learn from the model.

For example, he said, scientists will not be able to say exactly how Myrtle Grove, a diversion project that has been discussed for installation along the river, will affect navigation.

However, questions like whether a diversion could help with flood control up river or the impact of putting multiple restoration projects along the river that can be addressed by the new model, Willson said.

Another advantage of the new model is that it will be built out of panels that are cut to contour with a three-dimensional router, Willson said. The router will allow researchers to re-imagine portions of the river, cut those elevations with the router and see what impact it will have on water and sediment flow, he said.

In addition, the new building will serve as an educational tool for middle and high schools students, visiting legislators, visiting officials or the public, Willson said.

He added that the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority “wants this to be a place for people to come and learn about the river.”

More than just the river, he said, the state wants the site to be a place to learn about the important interaction between the Mississippi River and the health of Louisiana’s coast, which has continued to erode.

Although the old model was useful, it wasn’t intended to last more than four or five years. But through consistent repairs that life-span was expanded, Willson said.

“Finally, it was like OK, this just doesn’t work any more,” Willson said.

Through discussions with the state, researchers, consultants and information from other large laboratories across the country, it was decided that rather than just replacing the model, that it should be made bigger to cover more area and to expand the building in which it was housed, Willson said.

“We have an opportunity to do something big. Something that puts us out ahead of the corps and other groups,” Willson said.

Officials at the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority agreed and said if the model was going to be built it should be done right, he said.

It’s a tool that the state will need as officials make decisions about how and where to spend limited financial resources for coastal restoration and protection, Graves said.

“This is an advanced tool we need to have in place now to guide investments in the future,” he said. “You simply have to have that improved accuracy.”

Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a physical model it uses for river modeling located in Vicksburg, Miss., this system will be more advanced, he said.

“The capabilities go well beyond what is available in Vicksburg,” he said.