PORT ALLEN —The Morganza to the Gulf hurricane protection system reauthorization took another step forward Friday when the Mississippi River Commission recommended approval of the plan to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief in Washington, D.C.
The reauthorization plan for this levee system to protect Terrebonne Parish needed to get a recommendation from the Mississippi River Commission because the project will be funded through the Mississippi River and Tributaries project, which falls under the commission’s authority.
The Morganza to the Gulf hurricane protection system has been in the works for more than 20 years and more than $70 million has been spent in planning and through the authorization process, Col. Ed Fleming, commander of the New Orleans district, explained Friday during the commission’s annual high water inspection trip of the Mississippi River.
Planning for the levee system started in 1992 and it was first authorized by Congress in 2000. The project was authorized again in 2007, but the cost of building levees after Hurricane Katrina went up so much that the project had to go through a post-authorization review. Criteria for post-Katrina levee building changed the project’s cost from an estimated $886 million in the 2007 to $10.6 billion, he said.
Fleming said that while no federal money has been made available to build the levee project in Terrebonne Parish, local residents have twice passed a tax to generate enough money to begin work.
“They have already started to build this project,” Fleming said. “They are going forward with us or without us.”
He added that the local- and state-funded levee work is being built along the federal alignment included in the corps plan and appears to be meeting federal standards.
In an earlier meeting of the commission Friday, several people made comments about the Morganza to the Gulf project because they wouldn’t be allowed to comment during the briefing to the commission later in the day.
Reggie Dupre, executive director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District, thanked the corps for its work on the project, but emphasized that there’s already been a lot of work and study done on the levee system.
“After $72 million and 21 years, we’re ready to move forward,” Dupre said.
Currently, the plan calls for a 98-mile levee system at an elevation of 15.5 feet to 26.5 feet and includes 22 navigable floodgates and 23 box culverts with sluice gates.
Jerome Zeringue, executive director of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, also voiced the state’s support for the project and said the funding the locals and the state have put toward construction demonstrates this support.
“You cannot question the commitment of the state and locals,” he said.
However, Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, said there are still concerns about building this large levee system around so much existing wetlands. Although the system is supposed to be a “leaky levee” — meaning there are many openings to connect the wetlands inside the levee system with those that are outside the levee system — the concern is how long that will last, she said.
Sarthou said the concern is that with so many structures to maintain, it could be easier for the local sponsor of the project to just keep those structures closed. In addition, she said, with the rate of relative sea level rise, it’s possible that by the time the system is built the levee district might be forced to keep the gates closed most of the time.
Fleming responded that 85 percent of the current levee alignment runs along existing barriers to water movement such as natural ridges. In addition, he said a study of relative sea level rise found that even at the highest rate, it would be 50 years into the project — or 2085 — before there’s a scenario where the gates would need to be closed for extended periods of time.
Fleming also added that the corps has gone through the plan looking for ways to reduce the estimated cost of $10.6 billion and found some areas that could be changed to realize between a 10 to 30 percent reduction in the cost, Fleming said. The current timeline would have the system closed in by 2024 and completed with final elevations by 2035.
Dirt levees in south Louisiana need to be built in stages because the organic soils compact and settle over time, so it’s standard to build the first stage and then add “lifts” to that elevation, he explained.
The positive recommendation from the Mississippi River Commission Friday will be one more piece of information the corps chief will use when working on a chief’s report.
The chief’s report, expected to be completed and signed this summer, is needed before the project can continue through the reauthorization process and ultimately to congressional approval. If reauthorized, the next step would be to pursue federal money to start work on the project.