Friday, August 19, 2011

Training the Untrainable Mighty Mississippi

Chevrons in the St. Louis Harbor
If you’ve seen the Middle Mississippi from the air or by boat, chances are you’ve seen the work of St. Louis District's, Rob Davinroy and his colleagues at the Applied River Engineering Center. Some of their creations jut out from the shoreline, perpendicular to the river’s flow. Others, like the arch-shaped chevrons, sit in the center of the channel, strategically placed to direct the river’s ever-flowing sediment, while others do their directing underwater along river bends.

Innovation is a major emphasis of this group, which uses state-of the art sonar and acoustic doppler devices to accurately map the river bottom or measure water speed and direction. That information is applied to models, created and tested in the center. Those in turn lead to new ways of maintaining a safe and navigable channel depth and in some cases habitat restoration for fish and other aquatic life.

“What we’re all about is trying to manage sediment, whether to make the river deeper or wider or create some diversity,” said Davinroy, the center’s river engineering chief. “It’s all about how sediment is falling out.” In all, the center’s staff keeps tabs on approximately 900 structures installed along 300 river miles. A majority were built over a century ago when unpredictable river depths and snags made steamboat travel an occasional death sentence.

As early as 1824, the federal government charged the then Engineer Corps of the Army to remove river obstructions. Increasing commerce in the mid-1800s led to even more federal involvement in navigation. The post-Civil War era saw an explosion in levees, wing dams, dikes and jetties.

“Sediment’s been an issue since the Corps launched a navigation program,” he said. “It’s only gotten worse with development. . . We’re on this treadmill, trying to keep up with the continual sediment that comes into the system.”

Bringing in equipment to dredge (or dig sediment out from) the river bottom is one option, but unlike the permanent structures, sediment starts to fill back in as soon as the dredging operation is completed.

Safety is the primary reason for redistributing sediment. On river bends, in particular, a buildup of sediment can narrow a passageway to the point that a tow grounds or crashes. The 1980s saw a couple of notable accidents and resulting spills involving tows pushing barge loads of oil, and that led to a particular focus on the safety of river bends, Davinroy said.

Least Tern, an endangered species
of bird, nesting preserved
by Bendway Weirs
In recent years, ecosystem impacts have become a larger focus of the river training structures, both in terms of projects designed specifically for their ecosystem benefits and development of navigation structures that benefit wildlife.

Chevrons were developed because they lead to better fish habitat behind the dike, creating miniature islands more favored by fish than the flat sandbars formed behind traditional structures, he said.

Bendway Weirs, located underwater and uniquely angled to improve bend safety, were developed as an alternative to shoreline structures because the endangered least terns were nesting on sandbars where projects otherwise would have been built.

“We knew we couldn’t build on the sandbar where they were laying eggs,” Davinroy said. “We didn’t have any other choice but to do something in the channel. We conducted research to find what worked and angled them upstream rather than downstream like most.”

The weirs dramatically improved tow safety. But they were found to have an unexpected benefit as well. Follow-up studies showed they were a magnet for macro-invertebrates and a favored playground for fish. In one survey, 217 fish were caught around one, representing 12 species. Chevrons similarly were found to attract diverse fish species, even in the middle of the St. Louis harbor.

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