East bank residents of the River Parishes are a step closer to getting a new federal levee protecting them against floodwaters from Lake Pontchartrain — a project more than 40 years in the making that took on new urgency after the inundations brought by Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
President Barack Obama recently signed into law a comprehensive federal water resources bill that included authorization for an 18-mile stretch of levees protecting the towns of Montz, LaPlace, Reserve and Garyville.
It would run roughly parallel to Interstate 10 from the Bonnet Carre Spillway in St. Charles Parish to the Hope Canal in St. John the Baptist Parish.
The question now is whether President-elect Donald Trump and Congress will actually set aside the money to pay for it. The plan envisions a total cost of $744 million, with 65 percent coming from the federal budget and the rest from local sources.
"There’s no commitment to funding that we've been informed of," said Ricky Boyett, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans. "It now comes down to money. ... It's simply up to Congress, what they want to fund."
Boyett said some Corps projects get funding within months of being approved; others languish for years.
Still, the president's signature on the authorization bill is another hurdle cleared.
If built, the new system, composed of earthen levees, floodwalls and pump stations, would be designed to shield 120,000 people and more than 7,000 structures from a so-called 100-year storm, or one with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year.
Congress first authorized a study of the project in 1971. Dubbed the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Risk Reduction Project, it sat dormant for lack of funding until it was revived in the aftermath of Isaac, which put a swath of St. John Parish under water as storm surge swelled Lake Pontchartrain.
Local leaders, including St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom, have kept pressure on the Corps and other federal officials to get the project moving.
“Hurricane Isaac exposed the vulnerabilities of the River Parishes and the need for levee protection," Robottom said. "West Shore is the parishes’ No. 1 priority, and we will not stop until this project is constructed.”
One big question, aside from getting the federal money, is how local governments would come up with their share of the cost. St. John officials said recently that the parish would be responsible for about $50 million. By comparison, the parish's entire 2017 operating and capital budget is $88.6 million. Officials didn't immediately respond to questions about where the extra money might come from.
Corps officials have said it would take at least five years to complete the levee project once funding is secured, and that timeline could stretch out if money is set aside on a piecemeal basis.
Besides the West Shore flood protection project, the bill signed by Obama, called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, authorizes 16 other large projects for the state, including some in southwest coastal Louisiana.
Among them is a large ecosystem restoration plan in a 4,700-square-mile study area in Calcasieu, Cameron, and Vermilion parishes.
Altogether, the law authorizes $3.16 billion worth of coastal restoration projects.
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, praised the Louisiana initiatives, saying they would help build "strong infrastructure" in the Pelican State.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said in a statement that he hoped the authorization would "reverse the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ culture of delay" and "expedite completion of critical flood protection projects."
Graves, a longtime critic of the agency, added, "Flood protection projects dating back decades — some of which would have lessened the severity of the devastating flood event that ravaged Louisiana in August — don’t look much different today than they did decades ago. It’s inexcusable.”