Morganza to Gulf levee project swells to $12.9B

Advocate staff photo by Richard Alan Hannon -- Draglines pull dirt by the bucket to build a section of the Morganza to the Gulf levee near Houma in March 2008. The levee district, parish and state have pulled together money to keep building the Morganza to Gulf hurricane protection system as the federal authorization process moves forward.
Advocate staff photo by Richard Alan Hannon -- Draglines pull dirt by the bucket to build a section of the Morganza to the Gulf levee near Houma in March 2008. The levee district, parish and state have pulled together money to keep building the Morganza to Gulf hurricane protection system as the federal authorization process moves forward.

A report released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday estimates that building the Morganza to the Gulf levee project in Terrebonne Parish will cost $12.9 billion, a dramatic increase from the $887 million estimate when the project was authorized by Congress in 2007.

Parish levee and state coastal representatives said while they are glad the corps is moving forward with the project, it’s frustrating how slow the process has been.

“We’re pleased we’ve achieved another milestone, but the process just takes way too long,” said Jerome Zeringue, director of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The Morganza to the Gulf levee project planning started in 1992.

The increased costs of the project are the result of a number of factors, including the more-stringent levee building standards the corps adopted after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Those increased costs meant that even though the project had federal authorization, the estimated price of the project rose enough that the corps was required to do a post-authorization change report. In the report, required by law, the corps had to take another look at the cost and benefits of the project to determine if it were still a project that could be sent to Congress for authorization under a higher cost.

That draft report released Friday concluded that the cost-benefit ratio is still a positive and it’s now open for a 45-day public comment period.

The report includes a number of changes to the project including the extension of the levee system for an additional 36 miles. Now, the levee will extend from Gipson to the west and connect with the Lafourche Parish levee system at Lockport to the east, said Reggie Dupre, executive director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District.

“It’s a much bigger system and much broader system,” Dupre said. “At $12 billion and a 35 percent cost share (for the Terrebonne levee district and state), $4 billion is going to be tough to come up with.”

At the same time the corps has been re-evaluating the project, the state has been partnering with parish officials to come up with money to continue building the first stages of the levee protection, he said.

As part of that effort, residents of Terrebonne Parish approved an additional half-cent sales tax on Dec. 8 for the project, which is above the quarter-cent sales tax residents were already paying.

“It passed by 71.5 percent. In this day and age, a new tax passed by 71.5 percent,” Dupre said.

Between the levee district, the state and the parish, about $250 million has been invested in the project, said Garret Graves, executive assistant to the Governor for Coastal Activities. There is work on completing sections of levees and plans to have a floodgate installed in the Houma Navigation Canal by the start of this year’s hurricane season.

“At least you have some protection while waiting for this (authorization),” Dupre said. “The alternative is not surviving as a community.”

Graves said he has mixed emotions about the Friday report because although it was a step forward in getting federal authorization again, it’s taken $70 million in federal spending to get to this point without any of that money going to actual construction.

“This is absolutely unexplainable,” Graves said.

The $70 million has been spent on things such as a feasibility study in 2002, soil borings, field surveys and preliminary environmental clearances, wrote Rene Poche, public information officer with the corps New Orleans district, in an email response to questions.

Much of the soil boring and survey work done by the corps have been used by the Terrebonne levee district in their design and construction of the interim levee work, he wrote.

The delays in the project, Graves said, have seen the project go from a $550 million project that was authorized by Congress in 2000, to the $12.9 billion estimate released Friday.

Potential future sources of the local share of the cost could come from offshore oil revenues or even some of the projected fine money from the Deepwater Horizon oil leak, although Dupre said most of that money should go to coastal restoration projects.

Federal funding for the project, which would be possible after it becomes an authorized project, could be more difficult.

“History has shown you don’t get these massive amounts of money unless you get wiped out and we don’t want that,” Dupre said.

Zeringue said the state and local officials are working with the federal agencies to look for ways to bring that cost down such as construction methods, using basins to store water so levees don’t have to be as high and using existing levees to provide multiple lines of storm defense.

“Don’t get me wrong, we know it’s going to be expensive,” Zeringue said.

The draft plan can be found at http://1.usa.gov/ZVel3A.

The corps also will hold a public meeting on at 6 p.m. on Jan. 31 at the Houma Municipal Auditorium, 880 Verret St. in Houma, to give an overview of the report.

The open house starts at 6 p.m. and presentation starts at 6:30 p.m.

Comments much be received by midnight Feb. 18 and should be sent to Nathan Dayan, environmental manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, P.O. Box 60267 or emailed to morganza.comments@usace.army.mil.