Terrebonne, Lafourche parish officials show off levee improvements

By:  Mark Schleifstein,

July 20, 2016


Officials with levee districts in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parish briefed members of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority board on the status of the Morganza to the Gulf and Larose to Golden Meadow hurricane levees on Wednesday (July 20).

The authority board met at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, one of several meetings held in coastal locations during the year to hear briefings on local projects.

Reggie Dupre, executive director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District, and Mitch Marmande, an official with Delta Coast Consultants overseeing construction of the 98-mile Morganza to the Gulf levee that protects the Houma area, said more than $750 million in state and local money already has been spent on building portions of the new levee system. Congress authorized the levee in 2014. but has yet to appropriate any money for its construction, though the authorization calls on the Army Corps of Engineers to pay 65 percent of its construction cost.

Marmande said that 35 percent of the system would be complete by the beginning of the 2017 hurricane season, and that while the levee authority's contractors are building levee segments to post-Hurricane Katrina corps engineering standards, they're doing it for much less than what the corps estimated.

In part, that's because the contractors have been able to buy clay locally for about $15 a cubic yard, compared to the $40 to $50 per cubic yard or more that was estimated by the corps, he said. The corps had estimated the price of the levee as $10.3 billion, in 2014.

The segments completed so far are mostly south of Houma, and are being raised to 12 feet above sea level, which is what corps engineering standards say are necessary to protect the area from surges caused by a hurricane with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year, the so-called 100-year storm.

Dupre said its possible that 56 miles of the system could be completed by 2019.

They also hope that the associated Houma Navigation Canal Lock Project, which will be built adjacent to the new Bubba Dove gate on the canal, would also be completed, possibly as early as 2018. That project, which will help direct south part of the freshwater flow of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, including sediment it's expected to carry from the Atchafalaya River.

The state wants the project, which will cost $323.4 million, to be funded with fine money from the BP oil spill through the federal Restore Act.

Daniel Dearmond, the authority's regional director for the central part of the coast, said the North Lafourche and South Lafourche levee districts have been working with the CPRA on several projects aimed at improving the Lafourche to Golden Meadow ring levee.

The state and the North Lafourche levee district are spending $1 million to shift the alignment of three-fourths of a mile of the levee that had slumped, and raising that area and another quarter mile to 7.5 feet above sea level. Because bids for the work came in under budget, the elevation actually is a foot above what was originally called for, Dearmond said.

An attempt to add deeper and higher sheetpile protection to part of a floodwall along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, however, has run into trouble, said Dearmond and South Lafourche levee district executive director Windell Curole.

Curole and the state had  authorized a contractor to start the installation of the sheet piling in June 2015, despite the corps not yet approving a permit that had been filed for the work. In January, the corps issued a cease and desist order, and the contractor has since demobilized the construction site.

Curole said the decision to move forward with the project was because it represented a hole in the levee system as the 2016 hurricane season began.

A spokesman for the corps said Wednesday that placing the sheet piling in the water in front of the corps-built floodwall violated Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act and that the work also needed what's called "408 authorization," which is approval from the corps for a project that disturbs a corps structure.

The corps will require the state to sign a "tolling agreement," which allows the statute of limitations for violations of federal regulations to be suspended until after  an "after the fact" permit is either approved or denied, before it will move forward on the permit request or withdraw the stop-work order.

The CPRA board also was briefed on the status of a state and local government project aimed at increasing the flow of freshwater from the Mississippi River into Bayou Lafourche to about 1,000 cubic feet per second.

When complete, the additional fresh water will help fight saltwater intrusion that is speeding wetlands erosion in the southern part of Lafourche Parish. But the project also is needed to fight the salt water level in the bayou at the parish's drinking water plant. Water from that plant is used in several cities along the bayou and also at Port Fourchon.

Ben Malbrough, executive director of the Bayou Lafourche Freshwater District, explained that after the entrance to Bayou Lafourche at the Mississippi River was shut down in 1904, the northern end of the bayou slowly filled in. As much as 20 percent of the Mississippi's flow had moved through the bayou during high water years, posing a flooding threat to communities along its banks.

Today, only about 400 cubic feet per second of water is pumped from the Mississippi into the bayou, and that water must flow through a variety of obstacles, including a segment where it only flows through two culvert pipes, a weir that limits flow of water at Thibodaux and a railroad bridge in Donaldsonville that also restricts the flow of water.

Using a combination of local, state and federal dollars, the project already has upgraded the Mississippi River pump station, to increase the control of the flow of water, and has just awarded contracts to an engineering firm for initial work towards increasing the pump capacity to at least 1,000 cubic feet per second, in anticipation of eventually increasing the flow downstream. Also completed is the dredging of the bayou from Donaldsonville to Belle Rose. Additional dredging from Belle Rose to Napoleonville is under way.

Just begun is construction of a saltwater control/gate structure that will allow officials to reduce the flow of salt water upstream, and to hold back more fresh water in the event of a pump failure or other problems.

Officials also have reached an agreement with Union Pacific to rebuild the railroad bridge to improve water flow,  with the work not expected to halt rail traffic.

Still to be completed is removal of the weir at Thibodaux and dredging the remainder of the bayou from Napoleonville to Thibodaux.

The authority board also approved rules on Wednesday that will guide how it awards up to 10 percent of money the state will receive from offshore oil revenue under the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act.

Under both federal and state law, the state is limited to spending only 10 percent of the offshore oil money on infrastructure projects that are directly related to coastal erosion. The remainder of the money is required to be used only on coastal restoration projects.

The state will accept applications from local governments or state agencies to spend money on infrastructure projects up until Nov. 1 of each year, including this year, under the rules. At least three public hearings will be held on the projects. The CPRA board will compile a list of projects it approves and included it in the state's coastal annual plan, which acts as the annual budget of the state coastal protection and restoration Master Plan. The annual plan must then be approved by the Legislature in an up-or-down vote during its next regular session.

The new rules require applicants to explain how the proposed infrastructure project is impacted by wetlands loss and demonstrate the need for and benefits of the project.

The application must include a preliminary project designand cost estimate, including the status of environmental permits.

The application must also include a description of how the project is consistent with the state's Master Plan, and its economic benefits to the state.

The rules also urge applicants to include letters of support from affected landowners, although in a last-minute change, the board changed that provision from a requirement to something to be considered in ranking projects.

It also moved into the list of requirements an agreement by the entity submitting the project that it would perform any necessary operations, monitoring and maintenance work for the proposed project. That provision had originally been included in the provisions used to rank the projects for approval.

Other provisions used to rank the projects include:

Consistency with the Master Plan.
The "critical public purpose" of the project.
Its contribution to community resiliency, such as evacuation routes, connection to local businesses or regional commerce, and to state, regional and national energy security.
Resilience against future environmental conditions.
Beneficial economic impact to the state.
Opportunities to leverage funding for the project from sources other than GOMESA money.

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