Our Views: Building on water

In water, there is opportunity.

We see a great chance that Louisiana might generate the intellectual power to profit from water, and our long and varied history with it.

A research center called The Water Campus will be built on the Mississippi River, centering on a research facility that will take over the old Baton Rouge city dock downtown.

We could not agree more with Gov. Bobby Jindal: “With hurricanes and other natural and man-made disasters that have frequently impacted our state, we must continue to build upon our coastal improvements by making investments in projects like this new Water Campus, which will be guided by the best science available to further project our people and our coast.”

Yes, but there is more.

The scientists and computer modelers who work for the Water Institute of the Gulf, to be based in the Water Campus, are part of an ambitious effort to put science to practical use in the myriad issues facing Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.

The campus will be built by private and public funders, including funding for research projects for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

There are many who deserve credit for the culmination of this process, not least the indispensable and visionary civic leadership of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. But it also draws inspiration from the state’s leadership, including the delegation in Congress: Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., led post-Katrina delegations to the Netherlands to study flood protection and research there.

If Louisiana can become a center of research and sound science in water and its management, the potential economic benefits for the state are vast. The issues facing Louisiana in this realm are not unique, as coastal areas around the globe face rising sea levels. Great rivers from the Ganges to the Mekong to the Amazon face similar challenges to those facing the Mississippi River.

While economic development can be a long-range benefit of this project, Louisiana’s leaders must bear in mind one important issue, borrowed from the lexicon of environmentalism: sustainability.

As much as anyone, we look forward to the development of the campus. Yet what matters most is not the real estate, but the intellectual capacity that it houses. An initial and continuing investment must be made in research at the Water Institute, at nearby LSU, or the other collaborating colleges in the state, nation or world.

That will, inevitably, be public investment. Private sources of funding do exist, and will be tapped, but generally don’t flood in until commercial applications are cooking. Until then, there won’t be the readiness to pay the sustained costs of world-class researchers looking into problems in the abstract.

Louisiana has done a poor job of supporting the intellects in our existing institutions. We must do better by them, as well as invest in the minds that will fuel the discoveries of the future on the Water Campus.

As we celebrate the vision and promise of the Water Campus, let us remember that it is dedication to the intellectual infrastructure that will pay off for Louisiana and the world.