Colorado State University Awarded $1.7 Million to Design Levee Overtopping Facility in Wake of Hurricane Katrina

Note to Reporters: B-roll footage of the Engineering Research Center, where the levee overtopping system will be built, is available. Photos of Professor Chris Thornton are available with the news release at

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has hired a world-renowned Colorado State University water researcher to design and build a levee testing facility capable of simulating erosion from the enormous waves that likely contributed to Hurricane Katrina’s devastating toll on New Orleans.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded $1.7 million to Chris Thornton, director of the Engineering Research Center, to design and build one of the world’s largest wave overtopping simulators at the university’s Foothills Campus in Fort Collins. The CSU team will be initially responsible for generating guidelines and methodologies for determining the forces exerted on levees during extreme storm conditions for all levee systems, not just the New Orleans area, said Thornton, also an assistant professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department.

The project will consist of a specially designed tower and control mechanism, about 28-foot-tall by 7-foot-wide, operated by a computer system that will simulate waves larger than the roughly six-foot waves that hit New Orleans. Water will be sent into 40-foot-long, six-foot-wide “trays” that will be able to be used to simulate levees made of soils specific to any region.

Researchers at the Army Corps of Engineers Coastal Engineering Laboratory at the Engineering Research and Development Center in Vicksburg Miss., are building, populating and maintaining a set of trays simulating conditions consistent with those of the Gulf region. Once established, the initial sets of trays will be shipped to Fort Collins and tested during the spring and summer of 2010.

Levees, and their supporting infrastructure are susceptible to erosion and, as a result, potential catastrophic breach with intense hurricanes and the associated storm surge. Scientists and engineers generally agree that there is a real need for more information about how levees can be designed to resist wave overtopping and the potential for erosion.

And it’s not as simple as testing one levee in New Orleans, Thornton said.

“It’s not going to be one-size-fits-all fix,” Thornton said. “While testing can be specific to a field location and account for unique soil and vegetation combinations, we need to develop design methodologies that allow us to use all the tools in our toolbox.

“A tremendous amount of work has been done across the academic, engineering and manufacturing communities to develop engineered systems that resist the force of flowing water. Our job will be to crack the nut of physics and develop a method permitting the effects from forces generated on levees during wave overtopping to be incorporated into current design methodologies.

“I expect the results of this program to spark innovation and advancement in the erosion control industry.”

As director of the Engineering Research Center hydraulics laboratory, Thornton manages roughly $1 million dollars annually in applied research solving site specific problems for projects located around the world. The lab works with such clients as the Colorado Department of Transportation, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Federal Highway Administration, local and national consultants, and organizations throughout the country on performance testing, hydraulic structure modeling and sediment and river modeling. The unique capabilities of the facility and staff have permitted the laboratory to be an international leader in conducting model studies and training future engineers in the fields of hydraulics and river mechanics for the past 60 years.

Thornton said the Army Corps chose Colorado State for the project because of the unique capabilities of the facility and the project team’s experience in performing hydraulic studies such as dam overtopping analysis, spillway studies dam foundation erosion research and erosion control performance testing.

Additionally, the inclusion of national and international experts on the project team was seen as key to the success of the program. Jentsje Van der Meer and Steven Hughes, from the Netherlands and the Army Corps ERDC, respectively, are key players in the development, design and operation of the test facility.