An international quest for a Louisiana flooding solution

Dec 19, 2018

For most people who live in Baton Rouge—or north of Interstate 10—Louisiana’s myriad of environmental issues continue to be some distant, “that’s a coastal” problem. True, two years ago a once-in-a-millennial storm swamped much of the Capital Region, but even that’s been largely dismissed as something that surely won’t happen again—at least not in anyone’s current lifetime.

Yet the problems facing the state—and not just along the coast—are very real, experts say, and in many ways are worsening. It’s this growing concern for low-lying areas, stretching from the coast to New Orleans and across the Bayou Region, that prompted the Baton Rouge-based Water Institute of the Gulf to partner with Deltares, a world-renown Dutch applied research institute, in search of better ways to predict future flooding.

The Water Institute of the Gulf, launched shortly after Hurricane Katrina, is a nascent organization compared to Deltares, which has been operating for more than 50 years and is known as a global leader in water management research. The two organizations have shared information in the past, but officially partnered last summer to mitigate flooding impacts by focusing on developing software and levees, modeling watersheds, and infrastructure and nature-based solutions.

They’re also researching coast and deltaic dynamics and forecasting. In Calcasieu Parish, the two organizations have been working on a $50,000 modeling project to identify ways to better manage watersheds in that parish. There’s also work on developing real-time forecasting for the area.

It’s a challenge that anyone who suffered through the August 2016 flood can identify with, says Water Institute President and CEO Justin Ehrenwerth, given one of the greatest challenges of the event was was not having enough information to predict what areas might flood.

“We had an idea from geological surveys what areas would exceed capacity,” Ehrenwerth says. “What we couldn’t do at that time was predict where flooding would be and to what capacity.”

The real-time forecasting will allow researchers and officials to visualize where the water is going, which Ehrenwerth believes will not only benefit Calcasieu Parish but “Louisiana and beyond.”

In New Orleans, the partnership is addressing how the Gentilly neighborhood can manage rainwater, surface water, groundwater and land subsidence in a coordinated way in an urban environment. The $141.3 million project is being paid for through a grant awarded to New Orleans by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For both projects, Deltares brings its technical expertise in software and forecast modeling, while the Water Institute provides a familiarity with how New Orleans, Calcasieu and the Mississippi River delta works.

“Our experiences are really different, and when you put us together, the sum is larger than its parts,” Ehrenwerth says. “Together we are able to help with some of the most challenging issues in the world.”

The partnership between the two is of mutual benefit to both organizations, says Karel Heynart, a river and coastal management expert in the Netherlands who is serving as regional coordinator for Deltares’ activities in the United States. While the Water Institute gains international recognition with the partnership, Deltares gets connected to a region with one of the world’s most complex river deltas.

“We’re not here to earn big money, and we’re not the government,” Heynart says, “but we try to connect what is needed (in communities) and search for new techniques, and develop new methods to deal with water and build effective levees.”

Ehrenwerth says he doesn’t see the collaboration as something with a shelf life, but instead looks at it as a deeper way for the two groups to grow and work together. “We’re really thinking of this (collaboration) as a living and breathing organic thing.”

Beyond the partnership, the Water Institute is supporting the state as it implements its $50 billion Coastal Master Plan, which is the guide for Louisiana’s restoration and protection projects for the next five decades. Through this work, as well as knowledge gained through joining with Deltares, Ehrenwerth believes similar solutions can be exported to other areas of the works, such as the Mekong Delta in south Vietnam, island nations in the south Pacific Ocean and coastal Chile, which are all facing water management issues.

Heynart believes long-term and innovative solutions in the water sector will only come through international partnerships. Looking at other complex deltaic systems around the globe, for example, helps scientists have a better understanding of their own environment.

Baton Rouge could realistically become a hub for water management knowledge, he believes, because of its place on the Mississippi River and the fledgling Water Campus, but warns if Louisiana tries to work alone, it will experience tunnel vision.

“That’s why the Calcasieu Parish and New Orleans projects are so important,” Heynart says. “Then you see what you’ve thought and how useful it is, and you can improve it to keep applying it.”