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J. Sterling Jones Hydraulics Research Laboratory Overview

National Hydraulics Research Program

Laboratory Purpose

The J. Sterling Jones Hydraulics Laboratory at the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA’s) Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center is part of the Office of Infrastructure Research and Development. The Laboratory is responsible for research related to the impacts of flooding on highway infrastructure. 

One major impact of flooding is bridge scour. Bridge scour is the leading cause of bridge failures in the United States (approximately 25 to 30 bridges per year). Thousands of bridges are listed as "scour critical" in the National Bridge Inventory (NBI). FHWA's scour design methods are overly conservative because of the numerous uncertainties associated with scour design. More research is needed to better understand bridge scour and to develop improved scour design tools for practitioners. 

The J. Sterling Jones Hydraulics Laboratory has conducted research on bridge scour and other highway hydraulics phenomena for more than 35 years. The Laboratory is a state-of-the-art research facility with instrumentation, robotics, testing apparatuses, flumes, and computational fluid dynamics (CFD)/computational structural mechanics (CSM) capabilities that have improved significantly over the past several years. The Laboratory conducts research related to the National Hydraulics Program's functional areas and provides the capabilities and experience to conduct physical experiments and CFD modeling on a variety of issues involving water flow at or near the Nation's highway infrastructure.

CFD/CSM experiments superseded physical testing by a large margin in recent years and this trend will continue. The Laboratory's vision is to improve testing efficiency by automating zones within the lab using mobile robotics. The goal for the next couple of years is to continue conducting high quality research, advance trends in CFD/CSM modeling, and further automate testing facilities.

CFD modeling is conducted through collaboration with the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory Transportation Research and Analysis Computing Center. This collaboration allows access to high-performance cluster computing. Access to these clusters enables the Hydraulics Laboratory to solve highway hydraulics research problems more efficiently.

The photo shows a birds-eye view of the FHWA Hydraulics Laboratory. The tilting flume is on the left. Next to the tilting flume is the computational fluid dynamics (CFD) station, ex situ scour testing device (ESTD), in situ scour testing lab sump device, and the force balance flume (from top to bottom). From top-to-bottom on the right: soil sample preparation station, presentation station, and the fish passage culvert flume.
Figure 1. The FHWA's J. Sterling Jones Hydraulics Research Laboratory at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (Click to view larger image).

Research Program

The Hydraulics Research Program is a part of the National Hydraulics Program and coordinates research with the National Hydraulics Team (NHT), including the Program Office (HQ), FHWA Resource Center, and Federal Lands Offices. The research program studies problems related to the six functional areas that were developed by NHT:

  • Hydrology and Extreme Weather
  • Highway Drainage/Pavement Hydraulics
  • Culvert Hydraulics
  • Bridge Hydraulics
  • Scour, Steam Stability, and Scour Protection (Countermeasures)
  • Coastal Highways

Laboratory Description

The Hydraulics Laboratory is divided into seven zones for better laboratory management, maintenance, and capital improvements. The zones include:

  • Zone 1 – Multifunctional flume system
  • Zone 2 – Force balance flume system
  • Zone 3 – In situ scour testing device (ISTD), lab drill rig
  • Zone 4 – Lab soil erosion testing devices
  • Zone 5 – Particle image velocimetry (PIV), lasers, and cameras
  • Zone 6 – Laboratory office and 3D printing
  • Zone 7 – Laboratory machine shop

Figure 2. Hydraulics Laboratory zones
Figure 2. Hydraulics Laboratory zones.

Recent Accomplishments and Contributions


Recent publications include Hydraulic Considerations for Shallow Abutment Foundations, a TechBrief that provides programmatic and technical considerations for evaluating and mitigating abutment scour at bridges with shallow foundations.

Hydraulics Laboratory Publications
Publication Title Publication Number Year
Hydraulic Considerations for Shallow Abutment Foundations FHWA-HIF-19-007 2018
Advanced Methodology to Assess Riprap Rock Stability At Bridge Piers and Abutments FHWA-HRT-17-054 2017
Hydraulic Performance of Shallow Foundations for the Support of Vertical-Wall Bridge Abutments FHWA-HRT-17-013 2017
Updating HEC-18 Pier Scour Equations for Noncohesive Soils FHWA-HRT-16-045 2016
Scour in Cohesive Soils FHWA-HRT-15-033 2015
Fish Passage in Large Culverts with Low Flow FHWA-HRT-14-064 2014
Submerged Flow Bridge Scour Under Clear Water Conditions FHWA-HRT-12-034 2012
Pier Scour in Clear-Water Conditions with Non-Uniform Bed Materials FHWA-HRT-12-022 2012

For a complete list of publications produced by the Hydraulics Laboratory, use the Research Publications page.

Technical Assistance

Technical Assistance Subjects
Agency Fiscal Year Subject
USACE-ERDC FY19 Designed, fabricated, and installed two instrumentation robotics systems for the USACE-ERDC Cognitive Ecology and Ecohydraulics Laboratory
USACE-LA District FY19 Pier extension and guide wall design alternatives to mitigate local scour risk for the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad Bridge over the Santa Ana River downstream of Prado Dam in Riverside County, CA
SCDOT FY18 Hydraulic study of SCDOT catch basin type 25 (CB25)
MDOT FY17 Soil sample erosion testing for M–20 Bridge over the Tittabawsee River
Western Federal Lands FY17 Testing engineered log jams for roadside erosion protection for a proposed project next to Hoh River Olympic National Park in Washington State
MD SHA FY16 User Guide to assist HY–8 users in the application of HY–8's low-flow capability for identifying zones of lower velocity during low flows in culverts
VDOT FY16 Improve design methodology for estimating scour in rock for abutments


FY15/FY16 Scour Study for the Feather River Bridge over the Feather River in Sutter County, CA


FY15/FY16 Scour Countermeasure Study for the Middle Fork Feather River Bridge over the Middle Fork of the Feather River in Plumas County, CA

FY: fiscal year; USACE: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; USACE - ERDC: USACE’s Engineer Research and Development Center; SCDOT: South Carolina Department of Transportation; MDOT: Michigan Department of Transportation; MD SHA: Maryland State Highway Administration; VDOT: Virginia Department of Transportation; Caltrans: California Department of Transportation.

Other Accomplishments

In Situ Scour Testing Device Patent: Patent No.: 9,322,142 (Issue Date: Tuesday, April 26, 2016).

Laboratory Capabilities and Equipment

For detailed explanations of the capabilities and equipment at the J. Sterling Jones Hydraulics Research Laboratory, visit the pages on physical capabilities and numerical modeling. These pages include specifics on the laboratory zones and the Advanced Computing Center.

Laboratory Services

The Laboratory is capable of providing the following support services:

  • Technical assistance.
  • CFD modeling.
  • Flume testing.
  • In situ/ex situ erosion testing.
  • Automated testing.
  • Mechatronics support.
  • Research oversight.
  • 3D printing and laser cutting.
Updated: Tuesday, March 19, 2019