Fighting Coastal Land Loss with Professor Clint Willson
April 04, 2023
In this episode, President William F. Tate IV speaks with the Director of the LSU Center for River Studies and LSU Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Clint Willson. Willson shares the reason why the Mississippi River’s coastal land loss is not just a Louisiana issue, and how he educates LSU students to be coastal land loss fighters.
Clint Willson has spent more than two decades at LSU. Willson is the Director of the LSU Center for River Studies and the Mike N. Dooley, P.E. Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. His research is centered around one of the most vitally important assets to the state, the Mississippi River Delta. Willson is also a fellow of LSU’s Coastal Studies Institute. He previously served as the Director of Engineering Design and Innovation at the Water Institute of the Gulf as well as the Chair of the Changing Course Technical Team.
[00:00:00] President William F. Tate IV: Welcome to On Par. Today I'm joined by Clint Willson, the director of the LSU Center for River Studies and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is also a fellow of LSU's Coastal Studies Institute. His research is centered around something vitally important to the state, the Mississippi River Delta. We're gonna tee off with a couple questions. You ready?
[00:00:22] Clint Willson: I'm ready.
[00:00:23] President William F. Tate IV: Good deal. Where are you from and how did you become interested in engineering rivers and the coast?
[00:00:29] Clint Willson: Well, I was born in Pittsburgh, so born--
[00:00:31] President William F. Tate IV: There's a river there.
[00:00:32] Clint Willson: There is, as a matter of fact. And I was born about a mile from the confluence of the Allegheny Monongahela rivers that formed the Ohio. And so, really from that day, you know, my grandparents lived near one of two of those rivers. Um, spent a lot of time along the banks of those rivers. Moved about an hour north from there. And, um, you know, all lake within a small college town, just interested in water. Went on to Penn State, got my undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering after starting in biochemistry. So I'd done biochemistry for a couple years, but really found my passion or interest was more aerospace. And, um, fast forward, after about seven years in the Marine Corps, decided what was I gonna do next? And I'm like, let's combine this kind of chemical biology, chemistry, biology with how fluids flow.
[00:01:17] And so, went got my master's in PhD in, in really environmental fluid mechanics, environmental engineering, and civil engineering. But, so I've always been interested, I guess in how, how fluid flows and how it transport things, whether it's chemicals, whether it's, you know, nutrients, whether it's sediment. You know, how do, how do fluids move things? And so, you know, here at LSU and, you know, um, I had the opportunity to get started with a, a small physical model located on River Road about, um, just north of the Vet School, um, about 20 years ago. Just kind of testing out the, our capabilities and, and whether we could really contribute to the science of understanding how sediment moves down the river. And, you know, 20 years later we ended up at the Center for River Studies.
[00:01:59] President William F. Tate IV: You started this journey in Pennsylvania, continued to matriculate in academic programs there. Then I understand you went, made your way to Texas.
[00:02:07] Clint Willson: Yes, sir.
[00:02:08] President William F. Tate IV: How'd you get to Louisiana?
[00:02:09] Clint Willson: My wife's from Pensacola, and so as I was finishing up my postdoc and looking for faculty jobs, this is back when we had maps, right? She put a pin in Pensacola, put a string, about six-- they represented six hours and said, "There you go. Look for a job within that half circle."
[00:02:27] President William F. Tate IV: No pressure with that.
[00:02:27] Clint Willson: No pressure at all, no. So, I interviewed a couple places, right? And um, LSU offered me an, you know, a position, a faculty position in civil environmental engineering. Um, but really at the end of the day, it was the, you know, the opportunity to do research, you know, world class, engineering department, um, college, uh, you know, the, the opportunities here, you know, as somebody who's interested in environmental water issues, you know, Louisiana has them in spades. And so, you know, it can make multiple careers. And, you know, 24 and a half years later, we're still here.
[00:02:57] President William F. Tate IV: So after 24 and a half years and your time at LSU, and by the way, thank your wife for that, that circle and you landing here, that's big time. What are you most proud of?
[00:03:10] Clint Willson: I think it's really the connections with the students, the, and the students that have studied, probably mostly masters and PhD students, but you know, even the undergraduate students, I think it's the connections we made. Watching them in their path, you know, in, in consulting or for agencies or at universities, right? Doing research or, or designing and constructing projects around, really around the, the country, if not really around, in different parts of the world. And um, to me that's the most rewarding part, right? Is that, seeing them be so successful. You know, you get a note from some former student that's doing this really cool project in the, you know, southwest United States or up in the Pacific Northwest, or they're down on the coast, you know, doing a, a, a coastal restoration project and, you know, sending pictures and, you know, and, and you know, you just get that feeling of this is really cool and you're, you, you made a difference.
[00:04:02] President William F. Tate IV: Well, I have to say this before I ask you another question. After visiting, and I think there were some master students in the coastal engineering program, I had great regrets about my major. It was that special. I wish I had the chance to do what they were doing. That was special.
[00:04:19] So, the coast is an important part of our Scholarship First Agenda. What are you and your team working on? What are the big problems that you're trying to better understand and potentially offer solutions for?
[00:04:29] Clint Willson: I think the first thing to recognize is, is the, the power and the influence of the Mississippi River on building, you know, so much of the south central and southeast Louisiana coast. And then, it's passed in current importance in terms of the economy, right? And, you know, for, you know, sustaining industry, you know, communities along the river. And as that major transportation, you know, highway that connects so much of the Midwest of the United States to not just other parts of the United States, but really the world. You know, we think about that and then we, but we also realize, you know, the over-engineering or, or you know, attempts over the last 70, a hundred, 150 years to control the river, have really created a coastal crisis here in Louisiana with, you know, 2000 square miles of land loss over the last 80 years, and projected that to continue, um, because we've disconnected that powerful Mississippi River; its water, its sediment and nutrients from the lands that it built over the last several thousand years. And so, what we're trying to do at the Center for River Studies is help the state, Coastal Protection Restoration Authority, better understand how that water and sediment moves down the river so that they can utilize that. They can better design, better plan, better optimize their coastal restoration projects. In particular, river sediment diversions.
[00:05:46] President William F. Tate IV: What impact do you think the center has had on the state and even beyond the state? You know, other Gulf regions, parts of the Gulf region, the world, even. How, how do you, how would you characterize the impact?
[00:06:00] Clint Willson: You know, I think we're doing some, um, some really novel science with that physical model, with the type of model we have, with the type of sediment we have. The other part though, is the, the education and outreach. You know, in the two years before Covid, we had about 15,000 visitors. And those visitors went from, you know, middle school and high school students, to state legislators, to senators and Congress people from around the country, to several presidential cabinet- level people.
[00:06:25] And so, the ability to bring people in there and talk about the coast-- well talk about how our coast formed, how it's different from Virginia, or Hawaii, or from California. I think it's critical to people understanding really what the Coastal Protection Restoration Authority's trying to do to maintain and restore our coast. So, you start with that. Then, you talk about how we got to this situation, you know, how our engineering decisions-- and which were, you know, needed because we needed to protect industries and communities along the river, right? We needed to maintain navigation. So, those were necessary, but the consequences of those decisions, right, are leading to significant land loss, habitat loss, you know, migratory birds, fisheries, critical important to the United States, um, fishing industry, as well as navigation, et cetera.
[00:07:12] So, helping people understand that it's not just a Louisiana crisis, right, is important because, you know, and that, that, that the Mississippi River on our coast supports so many different industries. And then, transitioning to the work the state is doing, you know, this comprehensive coastal master plan is unlike-- you know, there are people from across the country or some around the world looking at Louisiana to say, "How do we get a science and engineering-based plan that is based on solid science, solid understanding?" A lot of that science was done here at LSU. So, being able to bring people in, right, and talk about how we, you know, how the system formed, how we got to where we are, and how the science and engineering is being used to plan, design, and construct projects that will have real ecosystem benefits, I think is, is very rewarding. And, and we can do that to, like I said, middle schoolers. We can do it to, you know, cabinet officials and, and scientists around the world.
[00:08:07] President William F. Tate IV: So, you mentioned the river model. Help us understand what the river model is and how it's being used.
[00:08:14] Clint Willson: Well, we call it a, a movable bed physical model. And what that means is, you know, it's, so, it's a representation of the lower 190 miles of the river. It is scaled to the, the elevations, the, the, the distances are all scaled down to fit basically in about a 120 by 90-foot platform. And we've got the, you know, I've got the levies in there. We've got, you can even see roads on there, as you probably saw when you were out there. You know, we've got the river bathymetry in there.
[00:08:40] But the-- one of the key differences between this and a number of other models is that we also use, we use these lightweight sediment particles that we can inject into the model itself with the water that's flowing in our model river. And those sediment particles, their density, and their sizes, are designed and were, um, manufactured so that they move down our model river, the way sand moves down the actual Mississippi River.
[00:09:05] And so what we're able to do with the physical model is we're able to reproduce what's happening in the real Mississippi River in terms of the flows in the river, the water levels in the river, and the way sand moves down the river in a very controlled way, and in obviously much faster than it happens in the real world, right? We can do one year on the Mississippi River in about one hour on the physical model.
[00:09:29] President William F. Tate IV: Well, how many years of the Mississippi River can you run on the model?
[00:09:33] Clint Willson: Well, we typically run about 50 years at a time. So, the state's coastal master plan looks at 50 years into the future. So, the different experiments we've run typically are over a 50-year future scenario, whether it's different flows coming down the river, it's different sea level rise scenarios, it's different amounts of sediment that are coming down. It's with river sediment diversions or without river sediment diversions. Overall, we've, you know, we've run probably the equivalent of about a thousand years of Mississippi River time, just typically in like 50 year, you know, chunks.
[00:10:05] President William F. Tate IV: So, what are you looking for? If I were sitting there with you, you know, bird's eye view, what do you want to come to understand when you run the model? What, what do you want to be able to help people see and understand?
[00:10:14] Clint Willson: Yeah, what we're really looking at with our instrumentation and a lot of the measurements the students make is how that sand is moving down the river on a month-to-month and year-to-year, so that the state understands, okay is-- if we have a river, they have, they're, they're actually getting ready to start construction on a river sediment diversion, which is gonna be the largest ecosystem restoration project in the-- that's ever been built in this country. And-- but to really optimize the use of that diversion, they want to know how much sand is available in that couple miles, just up river of the diversion. So, when they open the diversion, they're maximizing the amount of sand they get out into the estuary, into Barataria Bay, because they wanna maximize the amount of sediment that gets out there to build more land.
[00:10:59] So, what we're really looking for and what we'd be looking for if we were out there, right, would be how that black material, that sand is moving down the river on a month-to-month, year-to-year. And when you open up the river sediment diversion or you're thinking about opening it up, is there a decent amount of sediment sitting couple miles upriver? So that when you open the diversion, that sediment moves down and through the diversion out into the wetland.
[00:11:20] President William F. Tate IV: I'm curious, are there any other models like this? Is anybody else doing it the way we do it here at LSU?
[00:11:26] Clint Willson: No, it's a very unique model. It's, it's unique in terms of, I think, the scale and the, you know, we're covering 190 miles of the river. It's equivalent of about 12,000 square miles in the real world, right? Um, you know, we're, we're, we're using-- it's highly distorted in terms of exaggerating certain scales, um, but you know, we, we spent a lot of time, you know, theoretically and numerically and, and, you know, with a bunch of calculations saying even though we do this and we can fit 190-foot-long-river in this space, you know, and we, you know, we, we, we can do that. We can represent the important physics in the river doing this. And at the same time, we can also come up with this really kind of innovative way to use lightweight sediment, these lightweight plastic particles, so that they move down our model river the way sand moves down the actual Mississippi River.
[00:12:13] So, you know, there are others who, you know, have river models. Um, you know, it-- but everyone's kind of unique, in a sense. But this one is very, um, innovative I think in terms of the way it was constructed. You know, we also-- this isn't a one-year project, and we're gonna continue to do experiments for, for the next several years using this model. So, it was constructed to last, it's constructed to do long-term experiments, you know, these 50 year experiments. Um, and so, you know, we're really proud of the work that, you know, really even the design team, the advisory team, the science advisory team from people all over the country really came together to say, this is, this is gonna work. This-- or this is how we think it should, you know, be designed and operated. And then they're like, yes, this is the way we think it should work, and then it works.
[00:12:56] President William F. Tate IV: Well, you're distinctive in another way. Um, you have a partnership with a state agency, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. What does that mean, you know, for those of us who are watching? Why is that important that a research group like yours is in partnership with the state in this way?
[00:13:16] Clint Willson: You know, as the flagship university of Louisiana, it's, you know, I think it's a great way and a great partnership to demonstrate the impactful work we're having for the state of Louisiana. Um, so I think that's the first one. I think the second is, you know, the opportunity-- look, their, their building is 15 feet from ours. And so the opportunity day-to-day to work with the engineers, to work with their scientists, to have them bring over visitors, whether it's state legislators or it could be engineers or scientists from different parts of the country, the Corp of Engineers, or even internationally, right? To have them come over and, and to interact with me, but more importantly, the students, right? To um, to, to talk about the work we're doing, um, I think is really critical. And then, you know, the kind of third piece of that is the, the work we're doing, the research, the result, the data we're collecting, the results that we're providing to the CPRA, you know, is going into their Coastal Master Plan, and they're, and they're planning for how are they gonna operate, you know, plan, manage, and operate these river diversions into the future.
[00:14:19] Then think about, "Okay, what else can we do now, right?" Because, you know, like I said, they're already, they're in the design and one of the river sediment diversions is going to construction soon. So then it's like, "Okay, now we've got these two that are gonna be in place. What's next? What else can we do with the river?" Because the river built a lot of our coast, we should use it to its maximum.
[00:14:41] President William F. Tate IV: Right. So, as a personal note, I lived 18 years on the Mississippi River, a little further north.
[00:14:48] Clint Willson: Mm-hmm.
[00:14:49] President William F. Tate IV: In the St. Louis part of it. Now, almost two years here in, in Baton Rouge, and it's just an amazing waterway. What would you want a Louisiana resident to know and understand about this unbelievable waterway?
[00:15:06] Clint Willson: How it really built so much of our coast. And, and you know, you go, if you go, if you go to New Orleans today, realize that land was not there several thousand years ago. That was open water. And so, it's the river that built that land. And, the importance of the river for, for our economy. You know, I think we, we understand. People will look and see ships going up and down the river, but they don't always, I think, have an appreciation for how much each of those ships is worth in terms of what they're carrying. Um, I think we've got some of that, um, acknowledgement this fall with the low river, right? And hearing the, the impacts of the agricultural community, right? But to really understand how much that's care-- how much the river, how important the river is for our trade.
[00:15:54] We've got a Class 1 Railroad that comes right next to the center. We've got Interstate 10, which connects the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, then you've got the Mississippi River. And so really to, to, for people to understand that the river from, from a transportation standpoint of goods and products is just as important as those trains that go by, or the tractor trailers that are on I-10.
[00:16:16] President William F. Tate IV: That's beautiful. I try to tell people we're second-largest distribution system in this country. The economy of the United States depends on that river and, and you.
[00:16:27] Clint Willson: Yeah.
[00:16:27] President William F. Tate IV: And your colleagues. So, that leads me to another question. How do you inspire students to wanna pursue a career in coastal engineering and perhaps using, uh, the Louisiana water economy as a driver? How do you, how do you sell this?
[00:16:45] Clint Willson: Honestly, it's a pretty easy sell, in a lot of cases. And I think it's because, I think first off, students that-- students that grew up in Louisiana, I think a lot of them have the appreciation. They-- their parents, their aunts and uncles, their grandparents, whatever, have spent a lot of time on the coast. They go to their camps to fish or to duck hunt or whatever, right? So they've even-- the students, even at the age of 16, 17, 18, have already seen changes in their lifetime. It's not one of these things where you have to say, "Oh, back in 1920, this looked like this." It's, no, it's more like back in 2012 it looked like that...
[00:17:21] President William F. Tate IV: Right.
[00:17:21] Clint Willson: ...and now it looks like this. It's so easy to gush, and I use the word gush. It's so easy to-- to talk to prospective students about the opportunities here at LSU. You know, they're interested in the environment or coastal or water, and they know Louisiana okay. They're like, "Okay, I know they have a lot of issues, right, that they're trying to deal with". But by, you know, once we get started on talking about the different programs, whether it's coastal and ecological engineering, civil engineering, oceanography, coastal science, geology, geophysics-- all these, right? You start looking at the different programs. Then you start telling them about the faculty that are there and the number of courses that they can take. I'm like, "Hey, you want to take-- you wanna learn more about, you know, the coastal geology of Louisiana, go take Deltaic geology with Sam Bentley or Carol Wilson. You wanna learn about how water flows in these kinds of estuaries? Go take a class from Matt Hyatt or Chunyan Li. You wanna learn about the ecology of the system? Go take a class from John White or Robert Twilley."
[00:18:21] And you know, so the students, they're like, "Wait, you have all of these people there? You have all these opportunities." I said, yeah, and most of them, all of them are gonna get you in the field during the semester. So, it's not gonna be just a bunch of equations. It's not gonna be, "Oh, let's watch these videos or solve these, you know...
[00:18:38] President William F. Tate IV: Right.
[00:18:38] Clint Willson: ...run these computer programs." Like I said, it's somewhat an easy sell, I think, because people recognize the LSU name and I think they're-- as soon as you open their eyes a little bit or, you know, let them see all the different opportunities they're gonna have when they come here, it's really not tough. And so, we've got students from Wyoming, Michigan, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida, that want to come here and study. And so far, we've been pretty lucky that most stay in the state then and continue working.
[00:19:05] President William F. Tate IV: Well, I've got a different kind of question.
[00:19:06] Clint Willson: Okay.
[00:19:06] President William F. Tate IV: We're gonna go to a little lighter. More fun.
[00:19:09] Clint Willson: Okay.
[00:19:09] President William F. Tate IV: What's your most memorable experience from your work on the coast?
[00:19:13] Clint Willson: It's taking students out, whether it's research or as part of a class for like the first time. You know, you get, you were out at Wax Lake Delta.
[00:19:22] President William F. Tate IV: Yes.
[00:19:22] Clint Willson: Right. And to take students out there and to say, "Look, we can, we can take this boat and you may not think there's much elevation change, but look at the different types of vegetation. Look at the different types of sediment, right? And you know, that's what it looks like when we're building new land. And that's what we're trying to do here in the state is build or maintain land." And so, you know, getting them to experience that and see it and to say, okay, let's walk this hundred meters or 200 meters.
[00:19:49] When I was Faculty in Residence, we would take Honors College students after their freshman year who were part of the LaSalle program, right? The Louisiana Service and Leadership part of the Honors College. We would take them to LUMCON for two and a half days, and we would get out in the boats. We'd go to a barrier island, we'd go out in some of the newly created wetlands, or even some of the ones that we were losing pretty rapidly. And to get out of the boat with students who were from mass com, English, sociology, engineering, coastal environmental science, and to listen to them talk about what they see or what they experience. As an engineer, you know, I kind of go out there and I look at certain things and I experience it a certain way. But to see students, you know, from different disciplines and different interests, how do they view it? How do they experience that? And that's really something that to me that's been, you know, very powerful is, is to experience that and then learn from that so you can think about better ways to communicate.
[00:20:48] President William F. Tate IV: Well, Professor Willson, after listening to you, having personally visited the center, I can say I'm definitely sad I didn't major in coastal engineering or some science of that sort. But I'm more excited about the fact that you are here, and you've created a context so that young people and some who might be more mature can jump right in and engage, um, with the kind of work you're doing. Because it's not only exciting from a science point of view, from my perspective, it's foundational to how we're gonna secure and protect the people here in the state. And so, I really thank you for what you're doing at the center and your work as a scholar here, and engineer.
[00:21:27] Clint Willson: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.