Giant model of lower Mississippi River takes shape at new research facility


(WVUE) - Researchers studying proposed sediment diversions on the Mississippi River will have a giant new tool soon, a 90 x 120 foot physical model of the river and the delta it built.

"179 miles of river, from Donaldsonville to the Gulf of Mexico," said Rudy Simoneaux, Project Manager for the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

The new Center for River Studies in Baton Rouge houses the Lower Mississippi River Physical Model, which CPRA calls "state of the art."

The state's coastal master plan envisions large projects to deliver fresh water and sediment into areas of marsh and shallow bays. Engineering work is already underway on the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project planned for the Myrtle Grove area on the west bank of Plaquemines Parish.

In this age of sophisticated computer modeling, the physical model is designed to supplement research.

"The last thing we want to do is build a billion-dollar project in the wrong location," Simoneaux said.

The diversions are planned along bends in the river where natural sand bars build up over time.

"The model doesn't so much focus on how much land we'll build, but how does the river extract sediment from its bed," Simoneaux said.

Just as importantly, it aims to help answer how one diversion would affect another downriver or the effects on navigation. The model is built out of high-density foam - complete with water - and the ground plastic laying on the "river bed" to depict sand. One hundred hours of operating the model mimics 100 years of change. It replaces a smaller, far less sophisticated physical model built a couple decades ago.

Cecil Soileau, an engineer for 54 years, worked on both models but calls this one the opportunity of a lifetime.

"Everything that has to go into this model has never been done before," Soileau said.  "So, everything has to be designed and built from scratch."

The new model is more sophisticated, thanks partly to modern computer and satellite technology. It includes 216 individual panels, with the river channel carved by an industrial router, pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

"We took the whole surface, we broke it into 216 individual 3D files, put it in that computer and the router does the rest," Simoneaux said.

The model itself stays white while 20 projectors mounted near the ceiling add the greens, blues and browns of the Louisiana landscape.

"You could put whatever you wanted up there," Simoneaux said.  "You could put what a hurricane does to South Louisiana."
Officially, the center for river studies contains room for research facilities, classrooms, and a one-of-kind field trip.

"We can show them the power of the river."

LSU will operate the physical model once it is complete in the next couple of months.

While the state will offer school tours, Simoneaux said managers are still deciding how or whether it might be open to limited viewing by the general public.

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