Funding lags research

While the study of river hydrodynamics was first proposed in 2004, it wasn’t funded until 2011. So the scientists working on the 2012 edition of the master plan put together preliminary planning models that prepared the way for the more-detailed operating models to be developed when the latest data on the lower river became available. That work was cheered in peer reviews, even though it was based on river data that, in some cases, were decades old, researchers said.

“The planning-level models the state used were and are very much state-of-the-art, and it was very impressive work,” Kemp said. “There were over 100 researchers from all over the country and the world involved in what was a pretty remarkable effort.”

Many studies have been conducted on the river below New Orleans in the past, but those typically have focused on one site important to an individual project.

“This is the first time to look at the entire system,” said Ehab Meselhe, director of natural systems modeling and monitoring at The Water Institute of the Gulf. “We will want to know how the river acts and how these projects perform, not just in the short term, but over decades.”

The state and federal government are true partners in this project, splitting the cost 50/50. More than 50 researchers and technicians from state and federal agencies are shouldering the workload. The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority leads the state effort, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers heads the federal group that includes the U.S. Geological Survey.

Researchers are using stationary monitoring devices to collect information on water and sediment flow, as well as boat-borne instruments to develop accurate pictures of the river’s shape, including its bottom all the way to the mouth of Southwest Pass, the main shipping channel.

Cherie Price, a corps engineer and planner, said the agencies would continue compiling detailed accounts of the river’s transport of water and sediment over time to help project planners make accurate, decades-long forecasts. The ability to adapt to unusual river conditions has become more critical in the age of climate change, she said, noting that the river experienced a flood in 2011 followed by a drought in 2012.

Just as importantly, Price said, the study will show the impact of the diversion projects on the river and its other users.

“And we will be looking at the cumulative effect of multiple diversions on the river — the first time that will occur,” Price said.

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