NEW ORLEANS - Despite their differences of opinion, the Army Corps of Engineers, along with local and state representatives, signed an agreement on Tuesday to begin construction of permanent pump stations at the city's three outfall canals.
Officials said there was a sense of urgency during negotiations to get the project going, especially because the temporary pumps are only meant to last five to seven years-- a deadline that is quickly approaching.
"These are significant structures that will have a lasting impact on the city and the citizens of New Orleans," said Col. Robert Sinkler of the Army Corps of Engineers.
The $800 million project will have a major effect on the way the 17th Street, London and Orleans Avenue canals drain storm water from parts of Orleans and Jefferson parishes. However, some of the design options have been controversial, mainly at the 17th Street Canal.
The Corps wants to pursue "Option 1," which would build pump stations at the mouth of the canals, with flood gates that close during a storm. Congress has authorized that option.
"They're designed to prevent storm surge from entering the heart of the city of New Orleans at three different locations at the outfall canals," Col. Sinkler said.
Yet, local and state officials are pushing for "Option 2" and "2-a." Those include remedial work on the canal and the Pump to the River project.
"Let's be clear that we're going to continue to fight and continue to go to Congress and Washington D.C. to move forward with option 2 and option 2-a," said Jefferson Parish Council Chairman John Young.
As it stands now, the agreement is considered "option neutral," meaning the work can start, without having a final design option chosen. That work is expected last about two years and postpones making a decision on the options.
"I don't think that there is anybody here that is changing their position in terms of which option they think is the best solution," said Garrett Graves, with the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. "But I think that everyone here agrees that we've got to get moving on a permanent solution to ensure flooding never occurs in this area again."
Local citizen groups pushing for "Pump to the River," said they welcome the new agreement, but still see a long road ahead.
"It's a step in the right direction, but it's just a step in the right direction," said Lisa Ludwig, founder of the non-profit "Pump to the River" group. "It affects almost a million people in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, so it's something that really needs to be done."
Congress approved the money for the project in 2006, which is another reason why officials wanted to begin work on the project.