Winding from one corner of the warehouse to the other, the trough of the Mississippi River dominates the gigantic but still dry model of southeast Louisiana.
But by peering closer, visitors can see the ripples of other streams and bayous etched into the dense white foam, which, like the region it represents, gently gives way from land to marsh to the Gulf of Mexico.
Wednesday morning, scientists and engineers who built the state-of-the-art model gave a backstage tour to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority board and The Advocate. Technicians were still calibrating water flow rates and wiring projectors in anticipation of opening the Center for River Studies at The Water Campus to the public by the end of the year.
When it's complete, LSU scientists will be able to run water and a silt-like substances down the model, which starts at Donaldsonville in Ascension Parish. Then, by adjusting the flow and opening various diversion canals and flood gates, they can see where and how the sediment is deposited under various conditions, explained project manager Rudy Simoneaux.
Computer models are good at investigating particular projects in a tight area, but when scientists and policymakers want to see how a particular diversion will affect the whole system, it's time to run some water through the 10,000 square feet physical model, he said.
While it isn't designed to simulate hurricane surges, the model can demonstrate the effects of river flooding, said engineer Thomas McLain.
When it gets up and running, the model will be able to simulate one year of river flow per hour. By adjusting the height of the drainage pipes, scientists can also account for the encroachment of the Gulf of Mexico as sea levels rise.
The model left some CPRA board members awestruck.
"Oh my gosh, it's amazing. ... It's going to be great for them to test out the diversions," Laurie Cormier said.
Nedra Hains was one of several authorities who asked when the state can build similar models for the Atchafalaya and Calcasieu Rivers. Coastal restoration is an urgent matter, and "that ability to model faster is important," she said.
"You can really understand the nature of the problem and what can be done," King Milling said.
It makes older physical models look like "child's play," Milling remarked.
Board members "oohed" and "aahed" when engineers cut the lights and showed what else it can do.
A projector shone a satellite photo over a portion of the blank white surface. Only one of the fleet of projectors was up and running on Wednesday, but when they're all online, engineers will be able to load up images to show the waterways, emphasize where levees are located and otherwise bring the model to life, giving it the appearance of an inverted planetarium.
In fact, the CPRA has already let Louisiana's school systems know that it offers a "powerful learning experience" for middle and high school students on the coast and waterways. The Center also includes a museum area with exhibits about the dangers facing the coast and possible solutions. Tours for middle and high school classes and academic groups are expected to begin in the spring of 2018.
CPRA Executive Director Michael Ellis said he hopes the Center will inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers who will someday take over stewardship of the coast.
Louisiana parishes prepared to put up some money of their own for coastal restoration projec…