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ByWater Institute

The ByWater Institute is a nationally recognized environmental research institute focused on solutions science that addresses the grand challenges facing the ecosystems, communities and businesses along coastlines and rivers of the US. Using the Mississippi River Basin as our testbed, ByWater's growing number of experts and partners will advance a new scholarly approach to solutions science called “clinical trials for planetary health” — diagnosing problems and producing, testing and communicating solutions at unprecedented speeds and scales. ByWater’s overriding goal: Help create cities, coastlines and river basins in the region and beyond that are Thriving ByWater in an era of increasing climate extremes.

“Industrial and agricultural pollution. Equity of access to drinking water and sanitation. Sea level rise and coastal resilience. These are among the most pressing water issues facing the United States. It’s time to get serious about addressing them — which means finding solutions at scales that matter. The ByWater Institute’s research and community engagement can not only spearhead solutions on these issues; it can also help set standards for urban- and basin-level solutions across the world.” – Director John Sabo

New Zealand
Nature Is Infrastructure. Let’s Engineer It That Way

For scientists, publishing in respected journals is a key measure of professional success. In 2010, I co-authored an article that evaluated the science of water scarcity in the American West. It was accepted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, and I felt pretty good about myself. That is, until my respected colleague Nancy Baron, now with leading science communications organization Compass, asked me a question I wasn’t prepared for: So what?

Nancy was right. While the article’s research was solid, it was just that. It looked back, rather than forward.

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John Sabo with cloudy sky in the background
ByWater Institute director sees a better way

The news is full of stories detailing the negative impact humans have had on the environment and the potential peril of precious natural resources, such as water, that sustain life on this planet. But John Sabo, director of the Tulane ByWater Institute and professor in the Department of River-Coastal Science and Engineering at the School of Science and Engineering, is one of a new vanguard of scientists who are moving away from analyzing the problems to finding solutions to them. 

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View of the Mississippi River from space
A National Lab for the Misissippi River

Nearly 30 percent of Americans live in the Mississippi River Basin. Water from 31 states and two Canadian provinces ultimately makes its way into the Mississippi. Because of its size and reach, from shipping and agriculture to commercial fishing and tourism, calculating the economic impact of the Mississippi River Basin is almost impossible.

Yet the river that in many ways is America’s central nervous system is in serious trouble.

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green and brown building set among trees
Rising Residents explore climate change through artistic vision

A Studio in the Woods, a program of Tulane’s ByWater Institute, recognizes the power of art to address the planet’s environmental concerns and supports artists who are interested in engaging this issue through its artistic residency programs.

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The climate and water problems we face today — sea-level rise, dead zones, coastal land loss and equitable access to environmentally safe spaces — are the cholera and malaria of the 21st century. But conventional science moves too slowly and at too small a scale to address these problems adequately. The ByWater Institute works across disciplines and with and within a network of community, civic, governmental and academic partners to advance convergence research and community engagement initiatives that tackle these challenges head-on. 


Our vision of Thriving ByWater encompasses three pillars:

  • Designing Our Future ByWater: We help people achieve better water futures through adaptive designs of neighborhoods, landscapes and technologies that include nature as a tool for achieving those futures. 

    • We collaboratively design “engineered nature” as a tool for improving the outcomes of water infrastructure.

    • We integrate and operate natural assets in coordination with existing built infrastructure – from neighborhood to watershed.

    • We partner to invent nature-based technologies that connect waste, wastewater, shipping and commerce to create hydrogen as clean fuel.

  • Sharing Our Future ByWater: We help share the benefits of a Future ByWater through participatory research that embraces inclusion and equity.

    • Our scholarship seeks to improve access to safe living spaces, drinking water and sanitation, especially in rural communities.

    • We conduct participatory research that leads to solutions that are co-produced and co-owned by inclusive stakeholder groups.

    • We partner to speed translation of our scholarship into projects that allow us to test solution design and quickly scale the successes our experiments find.

  • Growing Our Future ByWater: We help sustain the growth of healthy river and coastal ecosystems and their embedded economies and communities. 

    • We improve the science connecting climate change and individual quality of life through collaboration across medicine and climate science.

    • We communicate health-climate change interactions as a way to motivate communities to embrace climate action.

Our scientists use New Orleans, our coastline and the Mississippi River Basin as a testbed for developing adapation and intervention strategies that can be replicated in coastal communities and river basins worldwide. We call this approach clinical trials for planetary health — experimental interventions with nature at appropriate scales that, when compared with controls, lead us quickly to solutions that can scale across the whole basin. 


Art is a critical part of Thriving ByWater. At the intersection of arts and the environment, our team at A Studio in the Woods hosts residencies for artists and scholars on land that is on the front lines of climate change. Studio programming focuses on creative responses to our lives by water, the climate crisis and the social issues affecting coastal communities. Studio supports the arts and humanities both as an innovative means of science/environmental communication and as a catalyst for new visions and solutions.


In New Orleans, a city prone to floods and hurricanes, water is omnipresent; the health of the water and the health of the city are inextricably linked. And no university has deeper personal and geographic ties to the river than Tulane. We are perfectly positioned for building a center of research excellence on water-related scholarship—and translating this scholarship into positive change. 

As New Orleans and other coastal communities face environmental change, sea level rise and evolving natural and technological hazards, planning for greater resilience and adaptability has taken on an ever-more-pressing sense of urgency. With our future at stake, success cannot be left to chance. We are at an inflection point, and the work we are doing at the ByWater Institute is vital to the existence of New Orleans. 

The Bywater Institute leverages Tulane’s unique location and academic strengths to translate scholarship into solutions, and to do the work that matters, in time for it to matter. The institute will establish Tulane as a local, national and international leader for how scholarship can address climate and water-related challenges.

Water is a priority at Tulane’s highest levels, which is extremely rare in American higher education, according to Professor Sabo. In fact, the university’s energy, expertise and commitment to water research and solutions are some of the reasons that he accepted the position at the ByWater Institute.