Corps expected to decide on River Parishes levee alignment soon

A year after Hurricane Isaac’s floodwaters washed over much of St. John Parish — and more than four decades after officials first began exploring building back levees there — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally appears ready to settle on a route for a levee to protect the River Parishes from Lake Pontchartrain’s surge.

This Friday, the corps plans to disclose which of three potential alignments it will further review for the west shore Lake Pontchartrain flood protection project.

Plans to put levees between LaPlace and the lake go back more than 40 years.

A study of adding hurricane protection levees in St. John Parish and areas of St. Charles Parish west of the Bonnet Carre Spillway was first authorized by Congress in 1971.

St. James Parish was added to the mix in three years later.

Now, for the first time, corps officials say they have enough money to complete a chief of engineers’ report on the project, which could set the stage for eventual congressional authorization.

Jeffrey Varisco, the project manager, estimated the cost of completing the project at $800 million to $900 million. The final price tag may come down some once an extensive review is finished, he said. The alignment isn’t expected to affect the cost much.

“If they all cost the same, why wouldn’t you pick the longest one and give us the most protection?” Varisco said, repeating a inquiry he fields regularly. “That argument doesn’t look at the totality of everything.”

Each option is weighed on “a multitude of factors,” Varisco said, including construction costs and the value of the property being protected.

The chief of engineers’ report, expected to wrap up next year, is likely to recommend building the project, detail its costs, and seek an authorization from Congress to begin design and construction.

The corps completed an initial review in 1997.

That advanced it to the feasibility-study stage, where it languished for 11 years, officials said.

That changed when the Pontchartrain Levee District signed on as a sponsor in 2008.

Though a mere Category 1 storm, Isaac’s northwest track and large size allowed it to push a tremendous amount of water into western Lake Pontchartrain and into St. John.

In the storm’s wake, River Parishes officials, including St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom, have pushed for quicker action.

“Of course, the ultimate goal is to have the report accepted and the finding appropriated for construction, but without going through this process and completing it, we can never get to construction,” Robottom said, adding that progress has “moved along very quickly” in recent months.

St. John’s share of the price tag would be about $23 million, according to Robottom. “Unfortunately, the longer we wait, the more it seems to cost,” she said.

Varisco, the project manager, said Isaac “brought the attention to the project in a more serious manner,” though he noted that the corps was “on our way to getting to this point.”

“Cost is a big issue,” he said. “Depending on what we build, there are different factors: where the levee is — if you’re spending more time in swamps, settlement rates are higher than if you’re closer in — the amount of pump stations that each alignment might cost us, how many flood walls are there, and the environmental impact.”

The tab for maintaining the levees will also be high.

“It’s not just the cost to build one that’s expensive,” Varisco said.

Each proposed route mostly follows the north side of Interstate 10 from the Bonnet Carre Spillway levee. Two of them connect with the Mississippi River levee west of Garyville, while a third continues to higher ground near Sorrento in Ascension Parish. Areas of St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, St. James and Ascension parishes would gain protection from surges in lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas.

Buddy Boe, St. Charles Parish’s chief administrative officer, said that even though only about one mile of the proposed levee may be in his parish, St. Charles officials see the project as important because “as we saw through Isaac, areas are flooding now that were never flooding before.”

“These areas are vulnerable, whether they’re low or near the lake, they are vulnerable to surge to a storm that comes in and fills Lake Pontchartrain and has nowhere else to go,” Boe said.

Ascension and St. James officials said they are hoping the corps chooses the alternative that includes their parishes.

Though Ascension is not part of ongoing corps studies of the levee, the locally preferred alignment would tie the levee into Ascension’s Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station in the McElroy Swamp, in the southeast corner of the parish. That would seal off the backside of Ascension and line up with an existing non-federal levee that the parish built several years ago.

The parish is planning to extend that levee to further seal off the parish’s east side.

Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez said parish officials have been informed Ascension is not included in the latest plans.

“We want to be in. We certainly wanted to be included. We’re going to still fight to be included because that project is a long way off,” Martinez said.

St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said he worries if St. James is left out, surge water will be funneled further into his parish, which saw unprecedented floodwater during Isaac. That would just cost more in the end, he said, adding: “It would be senseless for them not to go all the way.”

Roussel is frustrated by how long it’s taken already.

“This process should’ve been done by now, and it was some kind of dispute that took place as to where the alignment should be, and when some folks brought up north of I-10, that’s where it stopped, and so funding didn’t take place for that long of a period,” he said.

Not everyone is on board, however.

Tangipahoa Parish Councilman Bobby Cortez, who represents part of that parish’s low-lying southern end, said he, as others do, fears a completed levee along the south shore would push water into other parishes, like his.

“I don’t know what the answer is. I’d like to say the easy answer is a levee across the Rigolets to keep water from getting in the lake to begin with,” Cortez said.

St. Tammany Parish officials have pushed for the Rigolets system, which will be studied further, corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said. But corps modeling thus far suggests its effect would be limited — not preventing wind-driven surge from lake waters farther west — and would raise concerns about flooding in next-door Mississippi.

The corps has spent $4.5 million on the study since 1998, Boyett said.

After announcing the tentative alignment Friday, the corps plans to schedule public meetings in St. John and St. James parishes to gather additional feedback on the plan, Varisco said.

In November, Richard Hansen, commander of the corps’ New Orleans district office, is likely to recommend a course of action. The chief engineer’s report, due in September 2014, will likely attempt to justify the project to Congress.

Allen St. Pierre, a commissioner on the Pontchartrain Levee District, worries that St. James Parish may get left out.

“As much and as hard as we’re trying to get that hurricane levee coming in from St. Charles into St. John, and St. James and eventually going towards Baton Rouge, it’s a slow process,” said St. Pierre, who represents St. John.

In the meantime, he believes a resolution is near.

“We’re trying to do the best thing we can to prevent something like this from happening again, and that’s why I think all of the elements of what need to be done are coming to an end,” he said.

“Right now, the thing is put up or shut up, because it’s got to be done.”

Advocate staff writer David Mitchell contributed to this report.