Report details yearly costs for levees

A new report released Wednesday gives the state its first look at what additional maintenance and operation costs levee districts in southeast Louisiana face once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes construction of the improved levee and flood control protection and turns control over to the districts.

A report from the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute looked at eight levee districts from Terrebonne to St. Bernard parishes and estimated that about $12 million in additional operation and maintenance per year will be needed for post-Katrina work.

About $4 million of that is for levees and other flood infrastructure shared by more than one levee district, and how to divide that money still needs to be worked out, Trey Miller, economist at the RAND Corp., told the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority on Wednesday.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority contracted with the RAND Corp. to estimate operating and maintenance costs for the new system. The company was also asked to examine the levee districts’ ability to pay that amount and to look at what other states have done to raise the money.

“Most levee districts will be able to shoulder the additional operation and maintenance costs,” Miller said.

The exceptions, Miller said, are Lake Borgne Levee District and possibly West Jefferson Levee District, which could experience shortfalls in funding.

State and levee district officials said there are still many uncertainties about future costs associated with the levee systems and hoped that the report is just a first step in determining these costs.

Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said the RAND report doesn’t take into account extra expenses the levee districts could incur as a result of levee inspections, or from improved maintenance compared with that provided pre-Hurricane Katrina.

“We’re going to be carrying out more robust operation and maintenance activity,” Graves said.

In addition, the state and levee districts have been talking about doing some “smart levee” work that would involve things like placing sensors in levees that could help indicate if there are problems occurring between scheduled levee inspections, he said. That work would cost additional money.

According to the report, the impact on levee districts varies widely, from tends of thousands of dollars to almost $1 million.

Miller said possible solutions to help cover shortfalls in some areas include looking at cost-sharing between levee districts, reorganizing levee districts along basin boundaries or getting federal cost-sharing participation on navigable waterways.

“We noticed in other states the Corps takes responsibility for infrastructure in navigable waterways,” Miller said.

Currently, levee districts in Louisiana would be responsible for these structures.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority approved a resolution asking Congress to authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assume responsibility for the operation and maintenance of Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Sector Gate, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Barge Gate, Bayou Bienvenue Lift Gate, Seabrook Sector Gate and Seabrook Lift Gates.

“It’s going to take a change in the law to make this work,” Graves said.

Graves said the process by which the completed projects in the system will be transferred to the state and levee districts for operation and maintenance responsibilities is still being worked on between the state and the Corps.

The full RAND Corp. report is available at http://www.rand.org/gulf-states.

Editor’s note: This article was changed on Nov. 29, 2012 to correct the last name of Trey Miller, an economist at the RAND Corp.