Public gets rare glimpse of Waterways

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 18, 2004

Lee Baker, from left, and Donald and Vivian Brown listen to Mark Antwine, a contract student for ERDC, discribe the techniques used to extract mussels from their habitat for sampling purposes Tuesday at the Environmental Laboratory.(Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[6/16/04]Members of a Vicksburg family wanted to learn more about their new hometown, so they took advantage of Tuesday’s special, 75th-birthday Waterways Experiment Station tours.

WES, on 673 acres off Halls Ferry Road, has been closed to the public since security was heightened following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Before then, the federal research campus was toured by about 20,000 visitors a year.

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It is the headquarters and largest site of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Research and Development Center.

And it was a rare event. No future public tours of the complex were scheduled.

Noah Vroman, who moved with his family to Vicksburg about a year ago and works at the Vicksburg District of the Corps of Engineers, said he had driven through the WES site before and wanted to get a closer look at some of the things he had seen in passing or from the outsides of buildings.

“I wanted to see something I’ve never seen before,” said Vroman, while waiting to take the tour with his wife, Ashley, and their three children, ages 2 months to 5 years.

“We need to learn more about Vicksburg,” Ashley Vroman said. “We’ve just been here a year.”

The two had moved to Vicksburg from Texas, Noah Vroman said.

“You know, this is a big deal to have the Experiment Station in Vicksburg,” he added.

Waterways Experiment Station was created in 1929, two years after the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1927. Its mission was to engineer better management of the nation’s central river and tributaries. Today, WES is adjunct to ERDC, also on the site, and employs about 1,200 people locally, including about 600 scientists and engineers. The mission has expanded into numerous scientific areas ranging from explosives to super computing and environmental preservation.

The family was waiting to board tour buses that would give them a 90-minute trip through the complex, including stops at all four main labs. The tours were free and buses ran every 20 minutes for four hours beginning at 4 p.m.

David Maggio of ERDC’s Coastal and Hydraulics lab showed and talked about a running, 1:100-scale model of the Greenup Locks and Dam on the Ohio River.

The model is one of about 50 to 60 that are inside large buildings on the site, ERDC public affairs officer Wayne Stroupe said. About 12 to 15 of the models are operational at any one time, Stroupe added.

The model Maggio showed, about 480 feet long with a “riverbed” of about two to three inches of concrete, is of four miles of the Ohio River with the lock-and-dam structure as its midpoint, he said.

River experts design such models before they begin expensive construction work on structures like the Greenup ones, Maggio said. At nearly 50 years old, it is nearing time for an expected upgrade, he said.

“We’re trying to make sure (barges on the river) can get into the lock chamber in a very safe manner and with an optimal amount of money spent,” Maggio told the group of about 35 people who were on the 4:45 p.m. tour.

Much of the barge traffic that travels through the structure, which is about 20 miles downstream from Huntington, W. Va., is carrying “coal to the rest of the country,” Maggio said.

Other labs on the site focus on matters related to soils and structures and the plants and animals that inhabit rivers and streams and surrounding areas. One of the largest-capacity computing locations in the world is also operated on the site by ERDC personnel.

“You’ve got to be impressed with the variety of things they’re doing,” said tourist Ken Lee of Biloxi, the father of a former ERDC employee who was also on the tour.

As an example of the work done in the Environmental lab, tourists were shown foreign plants that have made their way to rivers, streams and coastal areas of the United States and grown to become a nuisance or worse. And they were shown a microscopic view of one of a species of insects researchers here have discovered can control the growth of such plants.

Visitors to the Geotechnical and Structures lab were shown a few ways engineers at the site have alleviated the problem sand and soft soil can cause for military vehicles. Among them was a “sand grid” that expands like an accordion, stands several inches high and can be filled with sand to make a beach road or a fortification or floodwall if necessary, Stroupe said.

Another tourist, Kathy Johnson, said she took the tour because her husband has worked at one location inside WES for five years but she had never seen the rest of the complex.

“We knew it was a huge place, and there are lots of things besides his area,” she said.

Johnson said she would never have thought about all the research that goes into “things we take for granted.”

“They’re doing all this behind the scenes, and we don’t realize how important it is to the security of the” U.S. and other countries, she said.