Two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District Planning Division team members participated in the 2023 State of the Los Angeles River Watershed Symposium Sept. 19 at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.
The symposium brought together governments, non-profit organizations, community-based organizations, scientists, academics, agency representatives, land managers and other interested parties to discuss emerging concerns about the Los Angeles River in the era of climate change.
Megan Whalen, a watershed program manager with the LA District and urban waters ambassador, was one of four panelists who participated in a breakout session titled, “Weathering Change,” in which audience participants discussed climate impacts on communities and strategies for resilience.
“I think the real emphasis today was on environmental justice and working with communities that will be even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” she said. “Severe weather has the ability to impact all communities; however, vulnerable communities are going to be even more at risk.”
Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin or income regarding the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies with no group bearing a disproportionate burden of environmental harms and risks.
For the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, environmental justice and disproportionate impacts to Justice40 communities are considered throughout the agency’s Civil Works programs and in all phases of project planning and decision-making.
Environmental justice is when everyone receives the same degree of protection and equal access to Civil Works programs and services to achieve a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work.
“So, in being here today, we not only are able to represent what we do,” Whalen said, “but also (represent) the partnership that we have with the Council of Watershed Health.”
A poster session followed the evening reception at the symposium, where attendees were able to walk around and discuss various collaborating agencies’ posters.
Manya Singh, a study manager for environmental justice initiatives with the LA District, presented her environmental justice and engineering with nature posters and discussed the Corps’ goals in achieving Justice40, as well as the Corps work with engineering with nature.
“We're here today to talk about these two initiatives and to indicate to our friends and partners these are two initiatives that we are looking for new connections and new opportunities to work on,” Singh said.
Singh’s environmental justice poster shows a recently developed map of the district’s area of operations, with various overlays that highlighted the environmental justice outreach conducted in local communities in 2023.
Singh’s engineering with nature poster was highlighted in the symposium’s pamphlet.
“I did spend a lot of time on this poster,” Singh said. “Engineering with nature is an initiative out of (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Research and Development Center), and, previously, the San Francisco District was considered the proving ground … recently the whole (South Pacific Division) has become a proving ground. That includes the Los Angeles District, so we are trying to let our communities know we are really pushing the engineering with nature approach. This poster highlights the four elements of the approach.”
For more information about the Corps’ environmental justice and engineering with nature initiatives, visit:
Natural and nature-based features (NNBFs) are becoming more prevalent in coastal resiliency and protection design as climate change threatens social, economic and environmental systems along the U.S. coast. However, planners need enhanced processes to predict and quantify their benefits prior to implementation.
To better incorporate these designs into numerical models, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has developed an Engineering With Nature® toolkit for the Coastal Storm (CSTORM) Modeling System, enabling planners to test the hydrodynamic, ecologic and adaptive effects of NNBFs on coastal or estuarine environments.
“The EWN toolkit for CSTORM modeling is a graphic user interface, or GUI, that allows a numerical modeler to represent NNBFs digitally in existing numerical models and standardizes and streamlines the augmentation of those features into the modeling framework,” said Dr. Amanda Tritinger, a research hydraulics engineer with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center and assistant program manager for the USACE EWN initiative.
The initiative uses the intentional alignment of natural and engineering processes to efficiently and sustainably deliver economic, environmental and social benefits through collaboration. As projects are planned, USACE districts require a method for predicting the impact that EWN features — such as NNBFs — may have on the coastal resiliency of communities, quantifying changes to predicted values of storm surge, inundation and wave attenuation for various storm events if these features were implemented.
Traditionally, the process for bringing these features into numerical models has been cumbersome and expensive. The modeling requires manual integration into the bathymetry/mesh, entailing a high level of skill and a significant time commitment. Each time the feature is altered, the mesh must be rebuilt, causing significant time delays.
“This new tool lets you get a preview of what your meshed-in feature will look like,” said Tritinger. “It also lets you drag and drop multiple designs in one at a time and choose alternative ideas to see what could work and what doesn’t. I think it gives engineers the thumbs up to try something different. It’s more than just a tool -- it’s the chance to push the line of innovation on engineering design.”
The tool doesn’t only open the door to innovation, but also to efficiency.
Standardization is an important key to the framework’s success. The CSTORM design team put a lot of effort into the literature review, working to consistently set the parameters of the numerical model.
“Before, you had to do this extensive literature review to figure out how to represent your features and the parameterization settings of your numerical modeling,” said Tritinger. “We’ve brought all the literature together and put it in one place in this GUI. It allows the user to see the metadata, where the numbers come from, and use their own expertise to adjust as needed.”
Interested districts can download the GUI by visiting the Aquaveo website or learn more information about the toolkit at the EWN website.
“There is also material on the EWN website supporting the toolkit,” Tritinger said. “I think that’s really important for actual application. It’s one thing to have the tool, it’s another to know how to use it. Hopefully this tool, and the documentation behind it, can empower the districts to quantify and understand effects of more resilient designs.”
As part of the EWN initiative, researchers hope to see more widespread usage of the EWN toolkit across the enterprise as the tool can be used to streamline mesh development in general for numerical modeling.
“I would highly recommend – even if you don’t have interest in NNBFs – to take a look, download it, and apply it to mesh development even outside the Advanced Circulation Model,” said Tritinger. “Because of the new workflow, you can develop a mesh and apply it to your own models. It does more than augment an NNBF into a numerical modeling framework. It can expand innovation on every project.”
Most beachgoers don’t think anything of the brown line of seaweed and other organic material that marks beach tide lines. This natural material that washes onto the beach – called wrack – includes algae, sea grasses and some invertebrates such as sponges and soft corals. Despite its unassumingness, wrack may be essential to helping dunes in protecting coastal shorelines from damaging weather such as hurricanes and tropical storms.
Researchers at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), along with partners at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Mobile District and The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), are studying beach wrack to see if it is key to a more resilient dune system.
USACE Regional Sediment Management researchers are currently studying the placement of wrack that has washed up on beach coastlines, collected and then strategically placed on existing dunes to measure the stability of the dunes and how resilient they are to turbulent weather.
Dunes are standard features along sandy coastlines around the world, except for the Arctic and Antarctic that lack extensive coastal dunes.
A line of dunes can protect from flooding due to high water levels and wave overtopping. Dunes can also reduce wave damage in developed landward areas by causing waves to break as they propagate over the dunes.
“Many coastal communities rake their beaches because they view wrack as smelly and unsightly,” Leigh Provost, an ERDC research coastal engineer with ERDC Environmental Laboratory, said. “However, wrack material placed on the dunes can trap sand and assist with initiating natural dune-building processes, and through this method of wrack management, which is known as wrack-cycling, coastal communities are actually building protection for themselves while dealing with what they see as an economic problem.”
Unlike previous methods to construct man-made dunes, where dunes are built to an elevation and then planted with vegetation, researchers are evaluating how a man-made dune responds when biological material is incorporated into the dune incrementally, mimicking the natural growth cycle of dunes.
By making these dunes more resilient, USACE is also helping to reduce the need for future dune restoration construction projects and possibly even reducing the need for future beach nourishment.
For this ongoing study on the Mississippi Coast, Provost and her USACE and USM collaborators collect wrack and place it to test the effect on the resilience and stability of the dunes.
Placing the wrack by hand is time-consuming, but it has produced positive results despite large weather events that have pounded the coastline.
“We recently came under the Engineering With Nature® (EWN) program at the beginning of FY23, and I am very excited to continue to test in the Mobile District, which is an EWN Proving Ground,” Provost said. “The Mobile District and the Harrison County Sand Beach Authority have been very open to trying new theories to research, and it will be interesting to see where this allows us to take our research.”
After Tropical Storm Cristobal, Hurricane Zeta and other hurricanes, the team was able to observe that the dunes in the study area lost volume but had a noted visible benefit of wrack placement along the treated dunes shared Eve Eisemann, previously a research physical scientist with ERDC’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory.
Continuing to assist the program under the EWN umbrella, USM’s Gulf Coast Geospatial Center provides high-quality surveys of the area using the most precise equipment available, leveraging state-of-the-art survey-grade equipment and a team of experienced staff, faculty and students.
The different instrumentation used for the precise measurements includes a variety of land-based and aerial, drone-based lidar devices used over a multi-day survey.
That experience of both the geospatial science and knowledge of the Mississippi coastline has made USM’s Gulf Coast Geospatial Center a key partner in the research.
In the United States, approximately 127 million people live in coastal counties, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That’s as much as the entire population of Japan.
“With so many people living along the coastlines, the impact of a storm can be billions of dollars,” Provost said. “That’s why research such as wrackcycling is so important to USACE and the United States. It’s imperative that we find solutions quickly to protect these communities.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, signed a project partnership agreement with the city of Tower, Minnesota, for a water treatment plant improvement project. The project will upgrade the existing facility to meet Minnesota Department of Health drinking water standards.
The water treatment plant has 492 connections and serves approximately 1,000 people in the city of Tower and Breitung Township.
The project will include water treatment plant upgrades along with removal and improvement of existing wells. The improvements will provide safe drinking water that is free of potentially harmful disinfection byproducts.
“This project aligns with our environmental infrastructure program mission goals to work with rural communities in northeastern Minnesota to improve their water-related environmental infrastructure, and ensure safe drinking water for residents,” said Corps’ Project Manager Michelle Prosser.
The project is estimated to cost $4.5 million. The Corps of Engineers will cover $3.38 million, and the city of Tower will provide the remainder.
It is anticipated the project will take 24 months to complete once started.
The St. Paul District’s environmental infrastructure programs assist rural communities with building, designing and/or restoring environmentally friendly water supply and wastewater treatment systems. By the end of 2022, the district has assisted more than 56 communities with this program.