Corps announces proposed route for St. John levee

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday tentatively selected a preferred alignment for an 18-mile levee that would protect St. John the Baptist Parish from Lake Pontchartrain’s surge, a year after Hurricane Isaac’s floodwaters wrought havoc in the parish and more than four decades after officials first began exploring building back levees there.

The corps’ long-awaited feasibility study and environmental impact statement for the west shore Lake Pontchartrain flood protection project recommends an alignment that tracks the north side of Interstate 10 from the Bonnet Carre Spillway levee and connects with the Mississippi River levee west of Garyville.

The planned route dodges some oil and gas pipelines and would reduced storm risk to nearly 7,700 structures, the corps said. It also proposes elevating about 1,480 homes and commercial properties in St. James Parish that are outside of the proposed levee. Of the predicted $881 million price tag, about $334 million is slated for levees and floodwalls, and $113 million for pump stations, according to the study.

The corps considered three potential alignments for the project, which was first authorized by Congress in 1971. On Friday, several local and state officials said the selected plan was not their preferred proposal, which would have cost about $10 million more and added another 10 miles to the levee, protecting an additional 4,920 structures and petering out at higher ground near Sorrento in Ascension Parish. Areas of St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, St. James and Ascension parishes would have gained protection from surges in lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas under that plan.

“The locally preferred alignment would have offered a lot more protection for a lot more people for the same price,” U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., called Friday’s announcement “an important step in the ongoing effort to build critical flood protection infrastructure for the businesses and residents in the River Parishes,” but said she did not support the alignment.

“The days of spending years studying projects are over. I am committed to finding innovative funding streams to get projects like this off the drawing board and on the ground,” Landrieu said.

The feasibility study’s release opens a 45-day public comment period. After the project languished for 11 years, corps officials say they now have enough money to complete a chief of engineers’ report on the project, setting the stage for eventual congressional authorization.

The corps’ decision came after it set out to review the potential for providing hurricane storm surge protection to nearly 18,000 homes and commercial structures on the east bank of the Mississippi River in St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, and St. James parishes, as well as the Interstate 10 hurricane evacuation corridor. The roughly 62,900 residents who live there have little or no storm protection in place, the corps said.

If the project is built, the costs for planning, designing and constructing it would be split, with 65 percent paid for by federal money and 35 percent coming from local sources.

St. John would be on the hook for about 20 percent of the local share, an estimated $62 million, parish President Natalie Robottom said Friday.

The study notes that the area’s population is on the rise, with suburban and industrial development continuing along the corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

It also says the gradual degradation of a large cypress swamp separating developed areas from tidal lakes has created “a substantial risk today that is expected to increase over time.”

The tentatively selected alignment encompasses Montz in St. Charles Parish, and LaPlace, Reserve and Garyville in St. John, the corps said. The plan also includes other storm-protection measures in Gramercy, Lutcher and Grant Point in St. James.

The corps said the plan, which also adds protection to about four miles of Interstate 10, would produce an estimated $23 million in annual economic benefits.

The project’s path tracks north across U.S. 51 and along a pipeline transmission corridor, following its path through the wetlands near the Belle Terre exit until reaching Hope Canal, then turning south and extending to the Mississippi River levee.

Steve Wilson, president of the Pontchartrain Levee District, which signed on as the project’s sponsor in 2008, said Friday that he was “surprised, but not shocked” by the corps’ choice.

“If we can’t push that decision to what we feel like is the more logical one, then we’ll always have the opportunity to finance the remaining portion on our own,” Wilson said.

In the study released Friday, the corps contended that the alignment preferred by many local officials — though it cost only $11 million more — enclosed more acres of wetlands than the alternatives. That would require more environmental structures and, in turn, more maintenance, which would contribute to a heightened risk of failure.

St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel, worried that St. James will be inundated by surge water funneled further into his parish, called the corps’ decision nearsighted. If it just comes down to the $11 million, Roussel said has a solution.

“I’m ready to go to the bank, I’m ready to give them $11 million. We’ll make a loan from St. James Parish and give them $11 million if that’s what it takes to get included,” he said.

It’s not clear, however, that it would cost only $11 million to protect the additional areas while using the alignment the corps selected.

Additional feasibility work still must be done on engineering and cost estimates, as well as environmental, economic, real estate and construction elements of the plan, the corps said.

That information will be used for a final report, which will be made public before a chief of engineers’ report is compiled.

Federal emergency disaster claims for damages from storm surge and rainfall flooding for the three parishes resulted in $338 million in payouts between 1978 and 2012, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency data.

Adding to the project’s urgency: The area in the study may experience up to 2.3 feet of relative sea-level rise over the next 50 years under what the study terms an “intermediate” scenario.

Isaac’s storm surge measured between 6 and 8 feet in the area, the corps said.

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

The chief’s report will detail the project’s costs, and seek authorization from Congress to begin design and construction.

Despite some disappointment that the shorter alignment was chosen, Robottom, St. John’s president, said she was pleased her parish would finally gain protection.

“Well, obviously, as a parish, we’re excited that the project has moved along up until now,” she said.

Roussel, meanwhile, is optimistic that St. James residents will be able to sway the corps to give their parish another look.

“I don’t believe this fight is over,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of fight left over in us. I think we’ve got a pretty good game plan, and we’re going to gear up our residents and get ready for the public hearing.”

The corps plans to hold public meetings in St. John and St. James parishes to gather additional feedback, the corps’ project manager, Jeff Varisco, said Friday. The first is set for Sept. 10 in St. James.