Army’s ERDC is 80 years old

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 31, 2009

It’s all water over the dam – or under the bridge – now, but history shows that the U.S. Army’s dominant research and development organization had an unlikely start: its own Corps of Engineers didn’t want it and opposed its creation.

Local historian Gordon Cotton, chronicling the history of Vicksburg’s Waterways Experiment Station in 1979, called the Corps “cool” to the idea, in the 1920s, of creating a national laboratory to conduct scientific research into river hydraulics.

Another Mississippi historian, Ben Fatherree, writing in 2004, said the 1924 Congressional bill to establish a Corps waterways experiment lab was met with “adamant opposition from the Corps of Engineers and from former and current members of the Mississippi River Commission.”

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The 1927 flood turned the tide, so to speak, and this year, Waterways Experiment Station marks the 80th anniversary of its founding.

The nearly 700-acre campus on Halls Ferry Road is now headquarters for what was renamed in 1999 the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center.

Federal and contract workers at WES probably represent the highest payroll in the area, said ERDC’s director, Dr. James Houston — more than $77 million annually.

Still, when he talks with locals or speaks at civic organizations, Houston has to point out where WES is and explain that ERDC is not part of the other Corps of Engineers organizations in Vicksburg – the Mississippi River Commission and Mississippi Valley Division headquarters downtown, or the Vicksburg District on East Clay Street.

“I’m always amazed at how little the average person in Vicksburg knows about us,” Houston said.

What he’d like them to know is something of the diversity of research that goes on behind the guard gate – research that saves the lives of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, protects Americans from terrorists, floods and hurricanes and helps protect and restore the environment.

For the last two years and four out of the last seven, ERDC has been named the Army Large Research Laboratory of the Year, an honor that was not envisioned in 1929 when Lt. Herbert D. Vogel received orders to build a hydraulics laboratory and started out for Vicksburg, a trip described as “a long dusty ride with a cemetery at the end.”

Originally a hydraulics laboratory charged with studying the Mississippi and other rivers, WES’ role has expanded in its 80 years to include many other areas of research benefitting military operations and troop deployment, civilian engineering, homeland security, water resource management and the environment.

Four of ERDC’s seven labs are on the WES campus: Coastal and Hydrology, Geotechnical and Structures, Environmental and Information Technology.

ERDC also includes the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab in Hanover, N.H.; the Construction Engineering Lab in Champaign, Ill.; the Topographic Engineering Center in Alexandria, Va.; and field offices in Alaska, Oregon, Texas, along the Georgia-South Carolina border, North Carolina, Maine and outside London, England.

From 20 employees occupying a single lab in 1930, ERDC now employs more than 2,500 people, about 1,600 of them in Vicksburg. Total facilities are valued at $1.2 billion, and the annual research program costs more than $1 billion, about 80 percent of it paid for by customers, the remaining 20 percent from Army allocations.

“It’s always a challenge when you’re so heavily funded by customers,” Houston said. “We’re unusual among federal agencies, because most get a block of money. That’s an easier life, in some ways, but I think we’re more productive. We have to serve our customers.”

Deputy director Dr. Jeffrey Holland will take over at ERDC when Houston retires in January.

“This organization has a long and storied history that serves us well even today,” Holland said. “In the 30 years that I’ve been here, we have never had a time where we have had funding problems. The reason is that we have really good people who do really good work. We have customers who believe in us.”

Holland said ERDC employees are also able to shift from one area of concern to another. “They can do more than one thing well,” he said, as well as work on interdisciplinary, inter-lab research. “By working together we are building technologies that produce innovation.”

In the 1920s, many Corps hydrology engineers opposed the creation of a national waterways research lab because they didn’t think experiments would work in predicting or mitigating the complex actions of the Mississippi or other rivers.

“The Corps of Engineers had used modeling to a limited degree in its hydraulic research for some years,” writes Corps historian Damon Manders, “but many officers questioned its usefulness in duplicating river conditions.”

Chief of Engineers Maj. Gen. Lansing Beach sent Mississippi River Commission member John Ockerson to represent the Corps at a 1922 congressional hearing on establishing a waterways laboratory.

“In his testimony, Ockerson argued vehemently that the Corps of Engineers and the MRC had been gathering hands-on observations and data for 43 years while working in ‘nature’s own laboratory, the river itself,’ and that a laboratory would have no impact on MRC policy,” Manders wrote.

About 40 years later, computer or so-called numeric modeling would face some of the same objections from engineers who’d come to rely on those physical models they originally discounted.

Today, both physical and computer models are used by scientists and engineers at WES. The four laboratories there often work in tandem, and with ERDC’s other labs, to solve pressing engineering and environmental problems for both military and civilian customers.

Earlier this month ERDC held its annual internal awards ceremony, handing out honors to individuals and teams working on an array of research projects. Some examples include:

• Karl Indest and Fiona Crocker, who are the first researchers to complete the genetic sequencing of a bacteria that eats explosives and can be used to clean up contaminated military test firing ranges.

• Steve Larson and Kent Newman, who are researching bacteria in soils that can be used for both soil stabilization and contamination cleanup, with potential applications in earthquake protection, levee construction and dust control as well as environmental restoration.

• Rick Lance, who was part of a 17-member team whose research reduced threatened and endangered species restrictions on military training sites, with environmental applications as well as training enhancements at numerous Army installations around the country.

• Bob Welch, ERDC researcher of the year, who led a team in modeling, simulations and development of “nanomaterials,” especially the ultra-high-strength carbon nanotube, which engineers believe can change the way building materials are developed and with applications in both military and civilian works projects.

Holland summed it up. “Our job is to take science, carry it to engineering and put it into applications. And we try to take as much science as we possibly can to practical applications as fast as we can. What we do, we do remarkably well.”


By the numbers

• Approximately 1,663 people are employed at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center — 1,177 federal, about 400 contractors and the rest students and temporary staff.

• The staff includes 609 engineers and scientists. Of these, 31 percent — 188 — have doctorate degrees and 38 percent — 231 — have master’s degrees.

• The annual payroll is $77.3 million.

• A total of 116 Mississippi contracts are obligated, with a value of approximately $26 million.

• This past year, ERDC’s R&D budget was $1.289 billion.

• R&D work is 81.3 percent military work and 28.7 percent civil works projects.

• The Vicksburg installation covers almost 671.69 acres.

• The Vicksburg campus includes 2,746,550 square feet of buildings and indoor facilities (under roof ) with more than $800 million in R&D facilities.

• The four Vicksburg labs have 58 active patents.

• ERDC is home to one of six major Department of Defense supercomputer centers, used by Army, Navy, Air Force and other Department of Defense researchers nationwide.

• The two supercomputers in Vicksburg have a capability of 114.6 trillion calculations a second. (A calculation is “1 + 1 = 2”.) An additional supercomputer will be installed in July that will have the capability of 172 trillion calculations a second, for a ERDC supercomputing capability of 286.6 trillion calculations a second.

• It would take 10,000 people doing a calculation each second a little over 900 years to accomplish what the ERDC supercomputers do in one second.

• The ERDC Graduate Institute, a cooperative venture with Mississippi State, Louisiana State and Texas A&M universities, offers graduate level science and engineering courses in Vicksburg. The Institute is open to the public and has non-Corps students attending classes, averaging about 200 students annually.

• ERDC employs graduates from universities from almost all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

• ERDC personnel have earned Ph.D.s from universities in 37 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and The Netherlands.

• ERDC has been named the Army’s top R&D lab the last two years and four out of the last seven.

Source: ERDC public affairs


Contact Pamela Hitchins at