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A contractor working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to start clearing land next month for the long-planned 18.5-mile West Shore levee project headed through St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes and part of St. James.

Even as dirt finally begins to be turned on a levee project that dates to the early 1970s, officials in St. James Parish are going back to the drawing board for their own locally funded flood barrier they had hoped would complement the protections that the $760 million federal project now underway already promises for St. James.

Parish officials say they have been trying to prevent surge out of Lake Maurepas from being pushed into unprotected parts of the parish's east bank once the levee and related improvements  are built.

But, earlier this month, voters in St. James rejected a 7-mill property tax that would have financed a surge barrier, as well as work on the parish's west bank. The new property tax measure was rejected by a vote of 81% against to 19% in favor, with fewer than 20 percent of registered voters casting ballots.

St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel, who is not seeking re-election, read a statement to the council last week thanking a drainage task force for developing the failed plan and to voice some of his concerns about the future.

"The voice of the people was loud; they are not ready for more taxes," Roussel said. "With St. John Parish's 16-foot levee being imminent and Ascension Parish working to protect their community of Sorrento, we are left with being a funnel for backwater. May God watch over and protect us as weather conditions continue to worsen."

With an annual drainage budget of $1.7 million per year without the new tax, it's not clear what kind of major capital projects the parish can afford with local dollars alone.

In the run-up to the tax, parish officials sparred over which surge barrier option to pursue: a $30 million plan to use Airline Highway as a kind of wall, which Roussel favored, or a potentially more expensive plan to extend levees off the West Shore project.

Last week, Parish Council members held off on an engineering contract to refine the cost of that second barrier option and instead discussed taking a step back to look at what they can do, while also reviewing smaller-scale culvert replacements.

"I think we got some time to still look at the different options, whether they're good or bad, at least we'll know they're on the table and at this time I think we need to start making contacts and listen to our residents," said Councilman Alvin "Shark" St. Pierre, who had lobbied for the second barrier option.

But the clock is running for St. James. The $3.06 million land clearing contract the Corps recently awarded to Quality First Construction LLC of Covington is expected to take six months to finish and is the first of two.

In interviews Friday, corps officials said they hoped to award a second clearing contract in the summer and have the West Shore levee ready for construction bids in mid-2020. Under this timetable, the levee would be built by 2024.

“This contract is another step forward in delivering an unprecedented level of hurricane and storm damage risk reduction for the residents of St. Charles, St. John and St. James parishes," said Ricky Boyett, spokesman for the Corps in New Orleans.

When the Corps and the Pontchartrain Levee District began re-examining the West Shore levee in earnest after Hurricane Isaac in 2012, officials in St. James and Ascension parishes had argued the levee should be extended to Sorrento to create a solid barrier from the outskirts of New Orleans to the outskirts of Baton Rouge.

The Corps rejected that idea due to low cost-benefit and environmental considerations — thousands of acres of wetlands would have been impounded by the levee extension proposed north of I-10. However, it did come up with other flood protection measures for St. James Parish.

Under West Shore, the Corps will spend about $50 million in St. James. The plan calls for building 6.5-foot-high ring levees around Gramercy, Lutcher and Grand Point, east bank communities that are otherwise outside the West Shore levee as well as modifying La. 3125 culverts on the east bank so the highway can become a kind of barrier from surge out of the north and a variety of other measures.

But even with those commitments, parish officials viewed the plan as incomplete for the long term, driving the effort for the now failed tax plan.

Louisiana is in line for $1.2 billion in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for mitigation after the August 2016 flood, but Roussel said it is not clear how much the parish can get of those dollars. Ascension, which flooded heavily in 2016, and other affected parishes are already drawing up plans to tap that funding source.

But Roussel asked how the parish can go after large amounts of federal money without "skin in the game." Councilman Ryan Louque, chairman of the St. James Council, said the answer may still lie with what the Corps is planning for West Shore.

"I still feel our long-term solution would be anything to build on what the federal government is coming to put in for us. How we chose to analyze that further or try to present it the most economically to our citizens, is still to be determined," Louque said.


Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.