Seeking to build on its work to combat the land loss and rising sea levels that are plaguing Louisiana, Tulane University has launched a riverfront institute to house researchers dedicated to studying and protecting Louisiana's waterways and coast.
The aptly named ByWater Institute, a 5,800-square-foot facility between the Port of New Orleans headquarters and Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, will house a team jointly employed by or affiliated with Tulane and its partner, the Baton Rouge-based Water Institute of the Gulf.
The institute will oversee the Tulane River & Coastal Center, where researchers will analyze soil sediments from the Mississippi River just outside its doors.
“The focus of the center is really on answering basic and simple questions, like, how much mud does the Mississippi carry?” said Mike Blum, a Tulane associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
That question, while simple, is at the core of much of the state’s work to preserve the coast, he said.
Officials overseeing sediment diversion projects — which will transport river sediment to other sites to build, sustain and maintain wetlands — need to know how much sediment is available as well as where to put it, he said.
The new building, which was dedicated this week, will give researchers who are already doing that work a comfortable space in which to continue it.
The $5.5 million facility holds offices, research labs, conference rooms and indoor and outdoor open meeting spaces organizers will use to raise public awareness about problems affecting the coast.
Those spaces are key in Tulane’s plans, given what Blum described as a “deficit of science communication in our community,” particularly since the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in 2010, he said.
“In many respects, building public awareness, bringing people to the river and telling stories about the river, about the science that’s done, is arguably as important as doing the science,” he said.
Tulane also will use about 40,000 square feet of space in the neighboring Mardi Gras World warehouse to store vehicles, vessels and field research equipment.
The new building can house almost 200 staff members and researchers and is the first phase of Tulane’s larger Riverfront Initiative, meant to serve as a launchpad for research and investment into tackling environmental problems.
In later phases, Tulane will rebuild the Robin Street Wharf close to its new facility, Blum said. Ideally, that will be done within a year. The university also wants to expand the ByWater facility to perhaps double or triple its present size, he said.
The lead researcher at the center is Mead Allison, a Tulane professor and Water Institute staffer who primarily works with soil. More research teams could be on the way, perhaps a group that works more with water, Blum said.