Waze for Water

Waze for Water


A Water Institute tool could transform river management and transport across the globe

By Sara Bongiorni
For captains and their crews, moving goods can be a white-knuckle experience.

Heavy with goods, boats must dodge each other through fast-moving and shifting currents, while also maneuvering around silt hidden under the water.

The Water Institute of the Gulf is developing a service that will allow navigators to be more confident in where they direct vessels, while also providing data for better management of shipping channels.

The Water Institute’s Justin Eherenwerth, center, discusses how sensors measure the Mississippi River’s depth. | Tim Mueller photo
The Water Institute’s Justin Eherenwerth, center, discusses how sensors measure the Mississippi River’s depth. | Tim Mueller photo

Based in Baton Rouge, the institute is pursuing federal funds to expand on its research and innovation in port operations, a shift that is starting with a first-of-its-kind digital technology that collects real-time data on sediment buildup along the length of the Mississippi River in Louisiana.

The cloud-based SmartPort tool gathers and analyzes data on water depth, currents, visibility and other factors using sensors affixed to commercial workboats. The sensors relay data to provide unrivaled insight into the buildup of sediment that can complicate navigation and cause expensive shipping delays. The institute plans to share this data with coastal researchers who rely on river sediment to restore coastal wetlands.

“Our hope ultimately is this technology can and should be used throughout the Mississippi River watershed and for riverine and coastal environments across the country and around the world,” said Justin Ehrenwerth, president and CEO of the Water Institute.

The institute began attracting interest in the project after the 2020 announcement of a pilot project with the Port of New Orleans to collect data on water depths. The 12-boat pilot demonstrates how data from existing tugboat sensors can be used by ports and other stakeholders who need to understand how sediment is building up on the bottom of the river using real-time measurement of changing water depths.

“Nobody’s done this before,” Ehrenwerth said.

The tool is one of two expected breakthrough developments related to port operations.

The Institute also hopes to use federal funds to open a port-focused research, planning and emergency-operations center adjacent to its levee-top headquarters on The Water Campus in downtown Baton Rouge.

At the planned SmartPort & Resilience Center, experts would develop resiliency strategies for each of the state’s eight Mississippi River ports to cover issues from hurricane preparedness to workforce challenges. It also would function as a clearinghouse for data harvested by the new tool.

Additionally, the 8,000-square-foot center inside the 1200 Brickyard building off River Road would provide a place for port officials from across Louisiana to share best practices related to shoaling and other challenges. It could also provide a backup site if operations at a port are interrupted by storms.

“I assumed something like this existed for ports, but it doesn’t. This is cutting-edge applied science.”
Both developments expand the institute’s work into a high-profile segment of the state economy—ports and related industries that generated more than $100 billion in foreign direct investment in Louisiana over the past 10 years, as state figures show.

State leaders want to speed expansion of a water sector through more port activity and the planned $50 billion in coastal restoration work over coming decades. “This initiative will increase Louisiana’s competitiveness throughout all port-related industries by deploying more efficient logistics technology,” said Don Pierson, secretary of Louisiana Economic Development, a partner in the SmartPort initiative.

The pilot is led by the institute’s director of applied geosciences, Dr. Mike Miner. The experiment has already proved the usefulness of the new tool, with the help of Crescent Towing, which volunteered its tugboats for the initial phase. Federal infrastructure funds would make it more useful still by allowing the institute to collect water-depth data from sensors on tugboats up and down the river, not just in New Orleans.

The additional data would be used to track currents, weather conditions, visibility, river congestion and even traffic conditions on nearby roads to benefit port operations.

Tugboats already measure river depth as they travel the river, but the data are typically only used by the crew to pilot the vessel and are not stored. Knowing how much space there is between the vessel and the bottom of the river reveals sediment buildup over time, while offering information to train a forecasting model.

The new tool improves the quality of data that is already collected by boats. The data can be transmitted to the cloud, where information collected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and port survey vessels exists, to correct for waves, currents and other factors.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation formed The Water Institute of the Gulf, now an independent science organization that provides water management science globally.
Survey vessel information is the “gold standard” for river measurements, but it is not collected all the time. “Your look at the present is dated and limited,” Ehrenwerth said.

Expanding the SmartPort tool begins with nothing more than attaching two cables to existing sensors on all tugs on the river, an upgrade that takes about 30 minutes per boat. Some workboats may not need the cables, just an app to transmit the data to the institute’s digital repository.

It costs tug operators nothing to participate in the SmartPort network. The more boats in the network “the smarter the tool gets,” Ehrenwerth noted.

Collected data improves decision making and planning related to dredging and vessel access. It may also be stored for use by coastal researchers to plan activities, from logistics to land building. The information boosts operational efficiency by allowing users to predict sediment buildup, its movement and other factors.

Ehrenwerth compared SmartPort to the popular Waze phone app that gives motorists real-time data on the most efficient driving routes by taking traffic and other conditions into account. Motorists use the app to avoid congestion caused by traffic and accidents.

The tool’s significance to both port logistics and coastal restoration arises from the dynamic nature of sediment. There is too much or too little of it in the river, depending on your point of view.

The Corps, for instance, will spend $85 million to deepen the 265-mile navigation channel from the Gulf to Baton Rouge from 45 to 50 feet to accommodate enormous Panamax ships.

On the other hand, the nearly $2 billion Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project proposed for the west bank of the river near Myrtle Grove would divert sediment to build and maintain as much as 28 square miles of new land in the Barataria Basin.

The basin has lost about 276,000 acres of marshland since the 1930s. The Mid-Barataria project is the most ambitious element of the massive proposal to preserve Louisiana’s coast. The SmartPort tool could be expanded to help inform when to open the diversion structure for maximum benefit. If coastal researchers know a large wave of sediment is moving down the river, for example, they will know when to open the system’s gates to capture as much sediment as possible, explained Bren Haase, executive director of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

The tool also will help coastal authorities identify “borrow areas” where sediment can be dredged for use in land building. It will show researchers how quickly sediment builds back up in these areas and when they can return to “borrow” more of it to build land.

The data will improve the predictions of coastal models. “In general, the more information we have about the river and how sediment is moving in the river, the better for coastal restoration,” Haase says.

The peril and promise of sediment is at the heart of what could be termed the new tool’s origin story. A few years ago, Ehrenwerth accompanied the governor and state and regional economic development officials to Israel to look for opportunities to collaborate on water management and cybersecurity.

Ehrenwerth got a sense of sediment challenges during a conversation with officials from the Port of New Orleans who also made the trip to Tel Aviv. The port at the time was facing a huge and unexpected cost for emergency dredging, they told him. That got Ehrenwerth thinking about ways modeling for coastal restoration could help ports with their own sediment headaches.

The pilot project last year and the looming move into port-related research have roots in the Israel trip.

“It gets back to that conversation about how do you get better at knowing that depth,” Ehrenwerth said. “I assumed something like this existed for ports, but it doesn’t. This is cutting-edge applied science, and we’re excited to be leading it here in Louisiana.”

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