Congress expected to approve Morganza levee project this month

By:  Xerxes Wilson,

May 18, 2014

A worker moves earth Friday afternoon on the Reach F1 portion of the Morganza-to-the-Gulf levee project near the Bayou Grand Caillou floodgate in Dulac.  Chris Heller/Staff


It was 2007 and champagne was popping as local officials welcomed the federal government's backing of a robust flood protection system for Terrebonne Parish.

It wasn't the first time locals celebrated only to see federal support pulled for the Morganza-to-the-Gulf levee system that aims to protect Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes from storm flooding.

Today the levee project is again nearing the federal government's full approval. Members of the local congressional delegation expect Congress to provide authorization within two weeks.

Flood protection officials are optimistic this congressional approval will finally open a steady trickle of federal money to fire the already frenetic pace of levee construction in south Terrebonne.

“This is the third time Congress has voted to authorize it. The third time is the charm,” said Terrebonne Levee District Director Reggie Dupre, hitting his desk and smiling.

The project was conceived in the early '90s and Congress gave it tentative approval in 2000 after a decade of study.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers failed to meet requirements tied to the approval, and the project languished as the area was swamped by more storms. In 2007, Congress again approved the project, then estimated to cost $800 million, only to pull the rug to rework the protection to post-Hurricane Katrina standards. Despite the new, $10 billion price tag, corps officials determined in 2013 that Morganza should move ahead. Congress is expected to issue its final approval by the end of the month.

Local optimism expressed

So what is different this time?

“The difference is, there is no hurricane like Katrina that would cause it to get delayed like before,” said Windell Curole, South Lafourche Levee District general manager and former director of Terrebonne's levee authority. “It looks good, but I don't blame people for being skeptical.”

Even if the authorization sticks, locals are not done courting Congress. Authorization is not an appropriation. Congress will have to approve money for the project in several installments over the coming decades. State and local governments must provide 35 percent of the total cost, or an estimated $3.5 billion.

So how will this happen?

Momentum, Dupre said.

Propelled by local taxes, Terrebonne's levee district has spent more than $200 million to raise levees and build floodgates along the project's alignment. The goal is to build the levees to a certain height and let the federal government raise them to toward the authorized height which is up to 26.5 feet in the parish's southern reaches.

The district also has the state behind it. Morganza is a component of the state's coastal master plan, making it a high priority for oil spill fine money and increased oil and gas royalties in the coming years.

“The state has always been committed to the project,” said Jerome Zeringue, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority chairman, a Houma resident and former director of Terrebonne's levee district. “We are on board and committed to the lock structure. It's the one single feature that is going to cost more than any other component.”

This year, the state has budgeted more than $50 million from criminal fines tied to BP's 2010 oil spill to design the system's centerpiece, a $350 million lock on the Houma Navigation Canal. When complete, it will be the single most expensive public works project in Terrebonne history.

“Add up what we are doing so far, what we plan on doing in the next three or four years, then add the lock into it. In six or seven years from now, it is not impossible we are knocking on the door of a billion in protection in Terrebonne Parish from the local side,” Dupre said.

One big question still lingering is just how much credit Terrebonne will get for its levee work. The parish accelerated its work building levees in the system's planned footprint in 2008. Local officials described that decision as somewhat of a risk because of uncertainties in how much credit toward its match will be applied for dirt already piled through the marsh.

“It was a risk. But it was obviously a risk worth taking because we had no choice,” Zeringue said. “We had to step up and protect ourselves because the federal government wasn't going to do it. It was risk, but there was a greater risk in doing nothing.”

Federal money the biggest issue

Local officials said the difficulty getting money from Congress tempers their excitement.

“I'm hopeful. But I am also acutely aware of the financial condition of the federal government,” Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet said. "In addition, the gridlock in D.C. causes a big problem with earmarks and any particular projects that do not have broad bipartisan support. Funding will be the biggest issue going forward. It is going to be an uphill climb.”

Dupre said locals shouldn't expect an impact from federal aid for two or more years.

Residents also shouldn't be dismayed by the price tag, which Dupre described as “unrealistic.” He said the project probably won't reach the $10 billion estimated cost.

Another reason for locals to be optimistic is how the long effort for approval has raised awareness in Washington.

“I think we have done an excellent job of convincing folks outside the state for the need of this hurricane protection system to support companies for the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Lori LeBlanc of the Morganza Action Coalition, a local business-supported advocacy group. “We are not just a community at the end of the road. We are significant in the work we do to provide fuel for the rest of the country.”

Dupre sees Morganza finally coming together.

“There is a path forward. ... It is not going to happen overnight. We are going to be a significant factor. We are going to be the biggest game in the town for the New Orleans district as far as big new flood protection projects,” he said


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