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December 3, 2004
Volume 42, No. 5


Water Proof: Hydraulics experts bring confluence of science and craftsmanship to enviornmental work
In wake of animal rights terrorism, researchers reaffirm human promise of their endeavors
Family Services meets need to care for the caregivers
What were voters thinking? Rainforest, drinking, and Iraq top list of concerns in student exit polls

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water proof

Hydraulics experts bring confluence of science and craftsmanship to environmental work
The College of Engineering has a dedicated mechanical shop to help Larry Weber, associate professor of civil engineering, build answers to problems with river dams. Pictured at work on a model of a spillway are engineer Troy Lyons and research assistant Chris Buren. Photos by Tom Jorgensen.

With each swing from hammer to nail, the promise of an answer to a delicate wildlife problem became more real this fall to Chris Buren. Buren and about a dozen other University of Iowa workers have been building large-scale indoor models of rivers and dams, continuing the College of Engineering’s world-famous work in research that studies and solves ecological problems on rivers.

That work takes considerable sweat and elbow grease, especially when it comes to creating things like a spillway replica the size of a basketball court. Buren says it also takes an abiding respect for nature.

“I like the problem solving that goes into figuring out how to make these models,” says Buren, a research assistant and 2002 University of Iowa environmental studies graduate. “But I also like the satisfaction of my work leaving this building and making a real difference.”

His work with UI engineers Troy Lyons and Peter Haug on a model of the Brownlee Dam, a utility spillway in the Pacific Northwest, could help find ways to make the dam safer for salmon migrating downriver to the ocean. Lyons and Haug are studying experimental gates that might allow the salmon to bypass the dam. They’ll put the gates to the test by pumping water into the models from a reservoir of 120,000 gallons under the floor of the Hydraulics Model Annex, a large warehouse off Court Street across the river from the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research—Hydroscience and Engineering (IIHR).

Since its beginnings in a red brick cubicle perched atop a concrete water channel on the Iowa River, IIHR has claimed fame as a relatively small laboratory that has had a large impact on the way the world uses water. Over the past eight decades or more, IIHR researchers have made a number of breakthroughs, including the Mississippi River’s locks and dams in the 1930s; in the 1980s, a system of screens to divert salmon around the turbines of power dams in Oregon and Washington; and in the past year, the first successful model of its kind—an indoor basin about the size of a small swimming pool—to replicate temperature stratifications in a lake and study the problem of cold water intake at a California power plant.

These days, IIHR faculty and student researchers are continuing the 1980s salmon studies initiated by Iowa engineering professor Jacob Odgaard. They’re using models in the Court Street annex and other IIHR warehouse laboratories to study various effects of several dams that sit on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Around the creation of their models swirls a lot of diverse talent. The full-time technical staff in the model annex includes an engineering research and development (ERD) machinist, an ERD welder, two laboratory mechanical technicians, two research assistants, and several engineers with specialization in electronics, instrumentation, and other areas. But position titles and job descriptions are irrelevant; here, the common cause takes precedence.

“We wouldn’t be in this work if we didn’t care about wildlife and the environment,” says engineer and the annex’s mechanical shop manager Darian DeJong.

Everyone in the annex’s mechanical shop is a jack-of-all-trades who enjoys dabbling in all that goes into construction of the models, according to DeJong. Whether that means swinging a hammer or hauling and shoveling gravel or fitting pipes and pumps, the work is endlessly fascinating to engineering technician Mike Kundert, draftsman for IIHR since 1984.

“It’s incredible that I can start with a set of blueprints of a dam and spillway from 1955, convert them to model dimensions, take them to the shop, and watch these guys transform shapes and lines from a two-dimensional piece of paper into an amazing three-dimensional model,” Kundert says. “And then, a short time later, engineers complete the loop by applying test results from running the model to modifications and improvements in the existing structure.”

Work on each model begins on Kundert’s desk. He draws up assembly instructions after sifting through databases of topographical information, as well as pages of yellowed architectural blueprints, many of them drawn by hand decades ago, long before computer design software rendered obsolete the ink and vellum that were the tools of Kundert’s trade.

“Technology lets us make countless revisions quickly and gives us an accuracy that’s incredibly precise, because we can work from the prototype measurements,” Kundert says.

In civil engineering vernacular, prototype refers not to a first model for working out the bugs, but to the actual dam or bridge, or even lake or river, under study. Working with measurements based on these real-world prototypes, Mike Anderson, the shop’s ERD machinist, can tool parts in specifications of thousandths of an inch, and Jim Goss, the shop’s ERD welder, can develop automotive-grade (or better) paint finishes for models of water channels. It takes that kind of precision to study structures like huge spillways, where even the slightest imperfection can set up shock waves and other disturbances.

Assembling the models takes from a few weeks to a couple of months, according to Steve Laszczak, supervisor of shops services. Part of Laszczak’s job is to look for new materials, like acrylics and stainless steels, IIHR model makers might use to build in even greater accuracy and durability. He also makes sure that, in the end, everything not only works right but also looks right.

“We’ve got engineers coming in to give our work the old eagle eye,” Laszczak says. “When they look down a line of piping or the placement for a spillway, nothing should jar the eye. If they trust us because they’re comfortable with what they see, then the incentive to take out a ruler and measure is not there.”

For all the hard work that goes into them, most models are only temporary tools, Laszczak says. Real estate for the University’s waterway models is at a premium. Consultants for power companies and municipalities, as well as UI engineering faculty and others, constantly seek IIHR expertise and space. The models must be built to come down as quickly as they go up.

Nevertheless, there’s a sense of lasting satisfaction for the work crew in the Hydraulics Model Annex.

“There’s no simple solution to our environmental problems,” says IIHR engineer DeJong. “We can’t just dismantle the power dams, even if some believe their impact on the environment might be negative. But we can make realistic headway through rational and scientific research, and all of us here are glad we have a part in that.”

by Gary Kuhlmann



Published by University Relations Publications. Copyright the University of Iowa 2003. All rights reserved.


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