A long-discussed $881 million plan to reduce storm surge from lakes in the River Parishes cleared another hurdle Friday, gaining approval from a key federal review board.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Civil Works Review Board unanimously approved a report on the feasibility of the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, an 18-mile levee system that would follow Interstate 10 west from the Bonnet Carré Spillway and connect with the Mississippi River levee west of Garyville in St. John the Baptist Parish.
The Corps has said the plan would reduce the risk of storm surge for about 60,000 residents.
The report, which also details the project’s cost, will be released to the public next month for comment. Once it’s signed by the Corps’ chief of engineers — possibly this spring — it will be up to Congress to include funding for it as part of the federal budget.
“Now would be the moment to celebrate,” said Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division and president of the Mississippi River Commission.
In a perfect scenario, if the project is completely paid for up-front, the system could be built in five years, said Greg Miller, chief of planning for the Corps’ New Orleans district.
The project was first authorized by Congress in 1971 but sat dormant for decades before being revived in recent years. It gained more support from local residents and elected officials after flooding inundated parts of St. John in the wake of Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
The plan outlined in the report was selected from three potential routes.
Some River Parishes residents were vocal in urging federal engineers to consider an alternate that would have added a 10-mile stretch of levees to help protect nearly 5,000 more structures in St. James and Ascension parishes. Though that levee could have been added to the current plan for about $11 million, the Corps balked at the idea, saying it would go through more acres of wetlands and require additional structures and maintenance, increasing the risk of levee failure and higher long-term costs.
The recommended route dodges some oil and gas pipelines and aims to cut storm risk to nearly 7,700 structures, the Corps said. It proposes elevating about 1,480 homes and commercial properties in St. James Parish that are outside the proposed levee.
Of the projected $881 million price tag, about $334 million is allocated for building levees and flood walls and $113 million for pump stations, according to the Corps’ feasibility study and environmental impact statement.
The proposed levee would protect Montz in St. Charles Parish as well as LaPlace, Reserve and Garyville in St. John.
It would start near the Bonnet Carré Spillway and extend west through the wetlands, then turn south and connect with the Mississippi River Levee before reaching St. James Parish.
In St. John, officials expressed relief at the prospect of gaining protection from Lake Pontchartrain’s surge during hurricanes.
The Corps’ review board first began discussing the project in September but deferred taking a vote on the report until it could get clarification on a few points, which were cleared up Friday.
The Corps said the plan, which also adds protection for about 4 miles of Interstate 10, would produce an estimated $23 million in annual economic benefits.
The cost of design and construction would be split, with 65 percent paid with federal money and 35 percent from local sources.