Morganza project clears a hurdle in Senate vote

By Keith Magill, The Courier

May 15, 2013


A water-projects bill that includes authorization for a major hurricane-protection project in Terrebonne Parish won Senate approval today.

The Water Resources Development Act includes billions of dollars in flood-protection and related projects nationwide.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., a coauthor of the bill along with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., recently added language to the bill that authorizes the $13 billion federal Morganza hurricane-protection project. The long-awaited system of locks and levees aims to protect Terrebonne and parts of Lafourche from Gulf of Mexico storm surges.

“WRDA is one of the single most significant pieces of legislation for Louisiana that we'll vote on this year,” Vitter said in a news release. “We have the opportunity to reform the Corps of Engineers, streamline and expedite flood protection projects, move closer to getting Morganza authorized, and improve our waterways and infrastructure all in one bill. This is a huge benefit to our state.”

Morganza has been authorized several times in the past, but the corps' stricter building standards imposed after Hurricane Katrina raised the cost substantially, requiring the latest congressional approval.

The Senate passed the water bill by a vote of 83-14. Vitter and Louisiana's other senator, Democrat Mary Landrieu, voted in favor.

Morganza still faces a vote the U.S. House's version of the water bill, expected to head to a vote this summer or fall. After that, it would head to a conference committee to hash out the differences between the two versions then final votes in the House and Senate.

“The House will be a big challenge,” Terrebonne Levee Director Reggie Dupre said today.

The Senate bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in late March. Vitter sat on that committee, but no Louisiana lawmakers sit on the corresponding House committee. Because of the federal budget problems in recent years, lawmakers have banned so-called “earmarks” from bills such as the Water Resources Development Act, which advocates say poses an obstacle for including Morganza.

Lori LeBlanc of the Morganza Action Coalition said today that the group will continue lobbying lawmakers in advance of the House vote.

“We're optimistic,” she said of the measure's chances.

Authorization is Congress's approval to proceed with the work; it does not include money. That would have to come through other legislation or through the corps' budget, something LeBlanc and other advocates acknowledge would be difficult to secure.

She and Dupre said the Senate measure would also streamline permitting and lessen environmental requirements for building Morganza's levees, and that could pay off with lower costs.

It would also give the Terrebonne Levee District credit for the more than $200 million in state and local tax money it has already spent building a scaled-down version of Morganza, LeBlanc said. That would clarify the issue — which had been in question — and lower the amount of matching money the district would need to come up with if the federal project ever gets launched.

Frustrated with years of delay by Congress and the corps, the Levee District is working to complete its scaled-down Morganza in hopes the corps will ultimately upgrade it. Using local and state tax money, work on the interim levee system is expected to be complete within about three years. A floodgate on the Houma Navigation Canal, a key part of the project, is expected to be complete before hurricane season begins June 1.

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