The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Chesapeake Bay Hydraulic Model

CLUI Spotlights Unique Maryland Site

1007 The exhibit at CLUI Los Angeles. CLUI photoTHE CHESAPEAKE BAY HYDRAULIC MODEL, the largest indoor hydraulics model in the world, which is now abandoned and decaying, was the subject of an installation prepared by the CLUI. The exhibit, Model of Decay, was on display at The Center's Los Angeles exhibit hall, from March 20 to April 30, 1998, and featured photographs of the model as it appears today in its abandoned and degraded state, as well as historic photographs of the model in its construction and operation phases, and artifacts from the model itself.

The Chesapeake Bay Hydraulic Model was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1970's, to model the fluid dynamics of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the most complex estuaries in the country.

1008 The Chesapeake Bay Model is contained in this warehouse, on Kent Island, Maryland. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station photo

The Model opened in 1978, and operated for only three years, before high operating costs and technical problems forced its closure. It has been abandoned ever since, and is about to be destroyed.

The eight-acre model surface, sculpted by hand in cement, was a 1:1,000 scale analog of the actual bay, and its river tributaries, up to the head of tide. Water entered the model at measured rates from inflow stations at the head of nine miniature rivers, and salt water, with exactly controlled salinity levels, flowed into a simulated Atlantic Ocean headbay, at tidal heights that could be adjusted on demand.

1009 Chesapeake Bay Model, as it looked in August 1977. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station photo

Problems such as the buckling of the model surface, due to insufficient expansion joints, shut the model down for repairs for months. Insulation sprayed onto the ceiling to help attenuate the temperature extremes in the windowless building (120 degrees F in the summer to below freezing in the winter), became saturated and began to fall onto the model, and eventually was removed with great effort.

Despite these problems, a number of tests were performed on the model, measuring characteristics such as water level, flow rates, and salinity distributions. During a test, approximately 20 technicians were required to manually record data from control points, and operate the computers and valves that managed the 450,000 gallons of water which flowed through the model.

The main reason for closing the model was emerging computer technologies. Though conceived in the 1960’s, more than a decade would pass before the model was built, by which time computer-based mathematical models were coming into use. In 1981, after around $30 million had been spent on the project, and after only a few years of intermittent use, the model was shut down, and abandoned.

1010 Chesapeake Bay Model technician at a tide gauge located on the Elizabeth River, at Portsmouth, Virginia, August 1977. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station photo

In its state of decay, the model resembles a futuristic, desertified landscape. The contours of the shoreline are plugged with dirt, and sand. Tire tracks left by trucks, which have been driving all over the model since its abandonment, are superimposed over the faded, miniature roadways, painted on the model surface, under the sand that covers much of the model now. Miniature bridges, mostly crushed and mangled, span channels that are clogged with debris and dried mud.

The Chesapeake Bay Model exhibit marks another chapter in The Center’s ongoing Model Earth Project, a program exploring functional model/maps. Other models that have been documented and displayed (in previous years at The Center’s Oakland gallery)  include the Army Corps’ San Francisco Bay and Sacramento River model, in Sausalito, and the Mississippi Model, the largest hydraulics model in the world, located on a 600-acre outdoor site outside of Jackson, Mississippi and, like the Chesapeake Model, now abandoned and decaying.