From their second-story vantage point, the governor and a fleet of scientists, politicians and philanthropists peered down at a basketball court-sized model of southeast Louisiana.
In the top left corner is Donaldsonville, with the Mississippi River winding past the grooves of diversion canals to the Bird's Foot Delta on the opposite corner, the real-life equivalent to 178 miles on the river, said LSU president F. King Alexander.
With the opening of the $18 million LSU Center for River Studies, authorities said Monday they have a unique and potent asset in Louisiana's race to repair its ebbing coastline.
"There's not another like it anywhere else in the world," Gov. John Bel Edwards said at the unveiling.
In fact, before the facility even opened, teams from China and Indonesia already visited to see what Louisiana researchers were up to. The state has also invited Louisiana teachers to take their classes, though officials have not yet worked out when the experiment schedule may allow general public admission.
In addition to serving as a model, a fleet of overhead projectors can give a presentation on the Mississippi River and ongoing coastal restoration efforts. The facility also contains a small museum with exhibits about the coast.
Scientists can send water and granules, representing sediment, down the model Mississippi model to simulate both coastal loss and restoration efforts. Every hour that passes in the operation represents a real year of time. By opening and closing various diversion canals, they can determine which projects to prioritize.
"We've always seen water rise in our rear-view mirror. That changes today. That changes today," said John Davies, president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which advocated and raised funds for the Water Campus just south of the Interstate 10 bridge where the Center for River Studies is located.
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The first step will be to run water through the model for the equivalent of 50 or 100 years without simulating any human intervention, said LSU engineering professor Clint Willson, director of the Center for River Studies.
With a baseline in place, engineers can open one canal and perform a run, then try another, then a combination and all the permutations of coastal projects. It's a scientific way to examine various options and help determine the best way to bolster the coast, Willson said.
The model will give a broad, system-wide view of each approach. It will also fact-check computer models and indicate where researchers need to collect more data, he said.
When they got a behind-the-scenes look at the then-unfinished model in September, members of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority's board were impressed and immediately began asking when they could get models of the Atchafalaya and Calcasieu river deltas.
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East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome hopes the center will serve as a launching point for public, private and nonprofit innovation and will foster knowledge that can spread from the Capital City throughout the world.
The model will help the state advocate for coastal programs and help people who aren't directly involved in research learn about more about land loss, said Johnny Bradberry, the governor's executive assistant for coastal activities.
Edwards told reporters that the Trump administration's decision to fast-track permits for the Mid-Barataria sediment diversion would make a "tremendous difference" in repairing the shore.
Nevertheless, he cautioned that it will take a number of projects to adequately address coastal restoration.
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The Center for River Studies will be a hub for all the state's coastal efforts, the governor said.
In fact, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited the Center for River Studies during a trip to Louisiana last month. Edwards said he spoke to Zinke a week ago, and the secretary remarked how much he learned at the facility about coastal restoration efforts.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke vowed to use his clout to fast-track coastal restoration projects during a Saturday visit to Louisiana.
Edwards also called to mind the recent opening of Center for Coastal and Deltaic Solutions across the street and reiterated his desire that Louisiana stand at the front of worldwide efforts to better understand how humans can thrive in homes near water.
It's a mission that will take generations. Authorities hope teachers take them up on their offer to bring schoolchildren to the Center for River Studies, and they are eager to try to inspire students to continue the work. Louisiana, and the world, is going to need to train the scientists and engineers that will carry the torch.