Nikki Buskey / The Houma Courier
HOUMA, La. — Terrebonne’s $13 billion federal levee system cleared a major administrative hurdle Friday when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ senior review panel voted to recommend advancing an updated report on the Morganza-to-the-Gulf project.
The report, which reevaluated the system, updating its cost and increasing its scope and hurricane protection standards to post-Hurricane Katrina levels, will now be released to the state of Louisiana and other federal agencies for comment.
Terrebonne Levee Director Reggie Dupre said the approval was the last major hurdle before the corps can release a chief’s report to Congress, allowing lawmakers to possibly authorize the long-awaited project for construction.
Officials expect to have a chief’s report completed by July, Dupre said.
“Terrebonne and Lafourche parish residents have waited for more than five years for this report to be compiled and finalized. We are pleased to finally see that the end is near and are hopeful that the corps will deliver a chief’s report and environmental record of decision by their promised July deadline,” said Morganza Action Coalition President Sharon Bergeron.
Morganza is a system of levees, floodgates and a lock on the Houma Navigation Canal. The project has been in development for more than 20 years.
The project was finally authorized by Congress in 2007 but was then kicked back for another study by the corps to bring it up to post-Katrina construction standards and re-estimate the project cost. Morganza was estimated to cost $886 million in 2007, but a draft report released in January increased that cost to nearly $13 billion.
The report inserts 36 additional miles of levees, extending from U.S. 90 in Gibson to La. 1 in Lockport. Morganza would then include 98 miles of levees, a lock on the Houma Navigation Canal, 19 floodgates and 23 water-control structures.
The western extension would follow the south side of Bayou Black Drive to Gibson. The eastern extension will connect with south Lafourche’s Larose-to-Golden Meadow levee system below Cut Off and stretch up the eastern side of the Lafourche ridge up to Lockport. The community of Gheens would be left outside the system.
After the chief’s report is completed, it must be sent to Congress, secretary of the Army, and the White House Office of Management and Budget for approval.
Louisiana lawmakers are angling to secure approval this year for the long-awaited Morganza in a water-projects bill called the Water Resources Development Act. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., recently added language to the bill that authorizes the updated project. Moving forward, Dupre said the biggest obstacle may be the U.S. House of Representatives. Vitter sat on the committee that authored the Senate Water Resources Development Act bill, 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. Dupre said a lot will be riding on whether House lawmakers consider the re-authorization of a long-standing project to be new construction.
“The Morganza Action Coalition is working closely with our very supportive congressional delegation to ensure that the administration supports Morganza’s re-authorization and that the project remains in the WRDA bill as it moves through the Congressional process,” Bergeron said.
Dupre said he is also working with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to urge the federal administration’s approval of the project.
Although authorization of Morganza would be a huge step forward, it is not the end. Local advocates would still need to go back to Congress to secure construction dollars to build it.
In the meantime, the Terrebonne Levee District is working on a scaled-down version of the Morganza project to provide immediate protection in absence of the corps’ help. The local Morganza effort aims to build 10-foot levees and 18-foot floodgates from Cut Off to Dularge. The Levee District also plans to build levees in Bayou Black and a floodgate and connecting levees in Falgout Canal in Dularge. The project is being paid for with state and local tax dollars.
“Terrebonne Parish is an economic engine for this entire nation. Protecting us protects significant American energy and seafood resources,” Bergeron said. “While our Terrebonne Levee District proceeds with the first lift of levees and floodgates along the Morganza alignment, we continue to demand federal support for this hurricane protection system that our community needs and deserves,” she said.