Morganza to the Gulf wins congressional authorization, but where will the $10.3 billion come from?

By:  Bruce Alpert,

May 22, 2014

WASHINGTON -- The $8.2 billion water resources (WRDA) bill, given final congressional approval Thursday, authorizes the long-stalled Morganza to the Gulf Hurricane Protection project for the third time.

The bill passed the Senate 91-7 Thursday, two days after passing the House 412-4. It authorizes seven Louisiana costal restoration projects, including restoration of barrier islands off the coast of Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes.

But the big item authorized under WRDA 2014 is Morganza, still leaving the question whether the third authorization will do what the two previous didn't do -- lead to actual construction.

The challenge is even greater because the cost of the project has skyrocketed -- from $887 million in 2007 to $10.3 billion, according to the Army Corps of Engineers most recent analysis. The higher costs reflect the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, and the damage to the coastline along Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008.

Morganza is a 98-mile levee, lock and floodgate system designed to provide hurricane protection to 200,000 residents of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who helped lead six months of negotiations over differences between the initial measures passed by the Senate and House, said there are reasons for be hopeful.

One, he said, the local sponsors are "very well organized," and ready to begin some of the hurricane protection work themselves with the expectation of getting reimbursed when Congress approves construction money.

In addition, he said, the Corps and the local sponsors are committed to work out ways to lower the cost of the project, which would improve the project current cost/benefit ratio of $1.40 in benefits to $1 in costs projection by the Corps - making it more competitive with other projects.

Finally, Vitter said, the authorization gives the state's congressional members the chance to work on the appropriation side. Without authorization, the project can't get federal funding.

Jerome Zeringue, chairman of Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, one of the local sponsors for Morganza, said state and local community sponsors are "clearly committed to the project to the tune of $300 million with an additional sales tax passed" to cover the local share. Generally, Corps projects are funded with a ratio of 65 percent federal funds and 35 percent local.

"We are working to develop practical engineering standards and guidelines that could create some efficiencies moving forward to lower costs, while getting to the same level of protection," Zeringue said.

 Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La, who also pushed hard for Morganza to the Gulf authorization, said the state might have to look beyond the Corp's annual spending bill to help fund Morganza and other critical hurricane protection and coastal protection projects. She mentioned the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue beginning in 2017 from 2006 legislation she co-sponsored giving producing states 37.5 percent of offshore oil and gas royalty payments.

"It will take serious funding to make a $10.3 billion project like Morganza a reality," Landrieu said. "Unfortunately, the President's budget included an anemic $4.6 billion for the entire Army Corps of Engineers nationwide, the smallest percentage of the federal budget in the over 200 year history of the agency. Louisiana cannot afford to rely on annual appropriations or business as usual with the Army Corps."

Despite the challenges ahead, Sharon Bergeron, president of the Morganza Action Coalition, said this week's vote for the water resources bill is an "exciting and historic day for our community."

"We have had many challenges on this long road to authorization over the years, but the people of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes have never given up," Bergeron said. "This determination and persistence pays off with final authorization from Congress today."

Among WRDA's most contentious provisions are those that streamline environmental reviews while consolidating or eliminating duplicative studies and concurrent government agency reviews of Corps water projects. It also imposes penalties for the Corps for missed deadlines and includes a provision for independent peer review long championed by Vitter.

Vitter and other proponents said the changes would speed projects that now take multiple years just to move past study and design. But some environmental groups warned it would lead to more Corps projects that harm the environment, such as the now closed Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.

"It's great to see funding for big ecosystem restoration projects included in the final bill, but the 'project acceleration' language undermines some of our nation's most important environmental laws and is deeply troubling," said Audubon vice president Mike Daulton.

Several groups, including conservative Heritage Action, urged a no vote, saying that the bill was too costly. Vitter said he and a "resounding" majority of House and Senate members disagreed with their votes in favor of the legislation, which he called a "fiscally responsible infrastructure and jobs bill."

"Today is a great showing of strong bipartisan support for our bill to provide significant coastal restoration, hurricane and flood protection, reforms to the Corps, accelerated projects, and, of course, jobs," Vitter said. "It's easily one of the most important bills we'll pass this year."

Louisiana House members were among the strongest advocates for the legislation, given the importance of flood protection and navigation projects for a coastal state. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, called the bill "a huge step forward in making sure our communities are protected from future storm surge like hurricanes Katrina and Rita." Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson said the bill "will lead to more building and less studying," and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, said it is an "important milestone in ensuring economic viability and secure infrastructure in Louisiana."

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.


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