Access to the levee in downtown Baton Rouge could be open to the public as early as late next week, but areas south of the Interstate 10 bridge will take longer to open, according to levee officials.

The removal of the orange Tiger Dam tubes began Monday and they will be drained, rolled up and stored in preparation for the next flood, said Jim Ferguson, chief engineer with the city-parish.

Next, city-parish workers will remove the sandbags and the tie-downs that attached the Tiger Dams to the levee. All of this work is expected to be completed by the end of next week, at which time public access will again be allowed on this section of the levee.

However, public access will stop at the I-10 bridge — where the Pontchartrain Levee District’s jurisdiction begins and continues south, said Steve Wilson, president of the Levee District Board.

When the river gauge in New Orleans drops to 15 feet, Levee District employees will be able to inspect the levee for any damage, unplug drainage canals and remove debris that will have settled on the water side of the levee.

Normally, the Levee District staff handles the debris cleanup, but this year the high water is ending at the same time hurricane season is starting, Wilson said. So, the Levee District is likely going to contract out the cleanup work so its staff doesn’t get burned out before the height of hurricane season hits, he said.

In addition, Levee District staff will walk the whole levee before they finish with inspections, Wilson said.

The good news for Baton Rouge is that those inspections will start at the northern end of the levee system, so the levee bike path that connects Baton Rouge with LSU will be the first section opened, Wilson said.

“We’ll try to get it done as quickly as possible,” Wilson said. “But they need to do it as safely as possible, too.”

In the meantime, both the city-parish and the Pontchartrain Levee District will be looking for signs of trouble as the water level goes down.

The water level in the Mississippi River continues to fall and should be below major flood stage of 40 feet on Friday, Ferguson said.

“It’s doing what we want it to do. It’s that slow gradual drop,” Ferguson said about river levels.

The water level has been high long enough that the levee has become saturated, and if the river level falls too fast, it can lead to unstable areas, Ferguson said.

“It has trouble supporting its own weight,” Ferguson said. “Wet dirt is much heavier than dry dirt.”

In Baton Rouge, the river level reached flood stage of 35 feet on March 30, but then fell slightly before rising to flood stage again on May 3. By May 8, the river level in Baton Rouge hit major flood stage at 40 feet.

Flood stage is generally reached when the level of water in the river that would go over the natural banks if the levee wasn’t in place.

If the water level falls slowly — as it’s expected to — the water inside the levee has a chance to drain out. Wilson said when the water starts going down, there is the possibility that sections of the levee will slide downward, under its own waterlogged weight — and that’s what engineers are most worried about.

The water level in Baton Rouge is expected to dip below flood stage on July 23.