Solving Shoaling with Technology

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The Smartport app would “scan,” help model and forecast shoaling in the Mississippi River by the vessels that traverse on it daily.

In June of 2022, the Port of South Louisiana joined forces with the Water Institute, the Port of New Orleans, and Louisiana Economic Development as partners in the Lower Mississippi River SmartPort and Resilience Center (SmartPort) being developed for the Lower Mississippi River. 

The Water Institute is an independent nonprofit applied research organization that works to solve complex environmental and societal challenges. Beaux Jones, acting president and CEO of the Water Institute, said the idea for the SmartPort started from discussions involving the Water Institute’s prior president and CEO, Justin Ehrenwerth, and port reps.

A problem that kept coming up was shoaling. This is when sediment is deposited in open waterways, causing a reduction in the local water depth. If the sediment piles up, that can force a port to pay for a costly emergency dredge. But ports had often been operating with imperfect data regarding sedimentation at the bottom of rivers. 

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The questions that kept arising in the Water Institute’s discussions with the ports were “How can we better help ports understand what’s going on at the bottom of the river?” and “How can we better predict what will happen in the future?”

“We know how much water is in the river, but what is happening at the bottom of the river is a mystery,” Jones said.

The SmartPort program involves developing an app to help model and forecast shoaling in the Mississippi River. By doing so, it can help ports be proactive in keeping their operations moving smoothly. It helps bridge a data gap for ports. Jones said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does a good job of surveying the river but does not provide real-time data.

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“We have snippets of info from the surveys, but we need to know what happens between the survey points and after the surveys are complete,” Jones said.

Jones likened the SmartPort’s app to the popular app Waze, which gives people driving directions and real-time traffic alerts. Every boat that passes through the river has a depth sounder that is connected to a computer with internet. Now, the approximately 75 vessels with the app are sending real-time data on the depth of the river 24 hours a day. It essentially deputizes vessels to be an army of survey ships.

The app will also have a real-time shoaling forecast tool joined with weather, river, and road traffic information to give ports a more holistic look at transportation activities. Another component will be the development of resilience dashboards to aid each port to better prepare for and shorten recovery time after disasters or disruptions.

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“This is a paradigm shift,” Jones said. “Rather than being reactive, we can now be proactive based on environmental factors.”

One way the app can help shipping companies is by aiding them in avoiding light loading. If the river’s depth is shallow, companies cannot load as much cargo on their ships. Jones said every foot of light loading can cause a company approximately $1 million. But with accurate, real-time data, companies can load their boats with less worry about whether or not they could potentially get stuck due to load that’s too heavy.

SmartPort was announced in June 2021 and the development of the project took about a year to complete. It was funded through a $1.6 million federal grant matched with $1.4 million in funds from the state of Louisiana and other partners. To start, the project will have a two-year trial run.

Jones said the feedback from the app’s users has been positive so far. The partners in the project are happy to be a part of it, too.

“As one of America’s largest tonnage ports, the Port of South Louisiana is focused on serving the maritime needs of resident industries. Partnering with The Water Institute and Louisiana Economic Development will allow us to apply sourcing data and cutting-edge scientific analysis to a concern for vessel operators and shippers not only on the Mississippi River, but around the world,” Paul Matthews, Port of South Louisiana CEO, announced in a press release. “Our better understanding of shoaling, and our ability to provide more accurate, timely and precise predictive elements to shoaling forecasts, will enhance the safety and efficiency of all the port’s maritime endeavors.”

“The Lower Mississippi River SmartPort and Resilience Center will provide next-generation maritime technology to ports and vessels along the Mississippi River,” Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson said in a press release. “Through collaboration with ports along the Lower Mississippi River, the state, The Water Institute and numerous partners, we are able to achieve greater economic successes across Louisiana.”

The success of the SmartPort program has been a bittersweet one. That is because Justin Ehrenwerth, the former president and CEO of the Water Institute whose efforts helped get the project started, passed away earlier this year. Before coming to Louisiana, Ehrenwerth served as part of former President Barack Obama’s legal team. When he came to New Orleans, he embraced the city, riding in Hermes during Mardi Gras, becoming a regular attendee at Jazz Fest, and worshiping at Touro Synagogue.

Jones described Ehrenwerth as not just a colleague, but as one of his closest friends. He marveled at Ehrenwerth’s ability to form relationships with a wide variety of people. “Justin was a fantastic connector, across party lines, industries, and social circles,” said Jones. 

Ehrenwerth had the ability to listen deeply to people’s problems and concerns and then try to figure out how he could help. He brought those skills to the SmartPort project. Jones said he and everyone else involved is committed to the project to ensure Ehrenwerth’s vision will be realized.

“He had immense faith and belief that it (the SmartPort) would be a transformative project not just for the Water Institute but for how we understand rivers and ports around the world,” Jones said. “This project would have never happened without Justin.”

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