Feds, state coastal authority at odds over paying for projects

The state’s coastal authority voted Tuesday to start legal action against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking the courts to decide how much, if anything, the state is obligated to pay toward two ecosystem and levee projects in south Louisiana.

Both lawsuits approved by the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority ask the courts for a declaratory judgment to settle differences between the state and the corps on cost-sharing issues.

The first suit deals with construction of the $3 billion Mississippi River Gulf Outlet ecosystem restoration plan. The state says Congress intended that the project be paid for 100 percent with federal funds; the corps maintains the state is required to pick up 35 percent of the cost.

“This is a lawsuit on a project that we have worked for four years trying to avoid this situation,” said Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. He said discussions between the state and the corps have reached an impasse.

Col. Richard Hansen, commander of the corps’ New Orleans district, said he couldn’t comment on any potential litigation, but could talk about the MRGO project itself. A feasibility study was completed in 2012 for that project, which would restore 57,000 acres of wetlands around the former MRGO navigation channel.

“To date, a willing non-federal sponsor has not been identified,” Hansen said.

Even without that cost-sharing sponsor, he said, the corps decided to recommend the plan to Congress because of the project’s importance to the area’s ecosystem.

The state has agreed to be the non-federal sponsor for the project while maintaining that position doesn’t obligate the state to put up any money for the work.

The second court action approved by the authority Tuesday involves a disagreement between the state and the corps on which entity should assume responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the section of the West Bank and Vicinity Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System along the Algiers Canal.

The state and the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West maintain congressional action before and after the 2005 hurricane season spells out that the operation and maintenance of that section should be paid for 100 percent by the federal government.

The 100 percent federal responsibility was set down in a 1999 Water Resources Development Act, then again in the 2007 version of the act, according to a resolution passed Tuesday by CPRA.

However, after Hurricane Katrina and again in 2008, Congress authorized additional funding for the West Bank project that included the normal provision that the local sponsor must take over upkeep after the project is completed.

The state maintains the 1999 and 2007 acts specify that upkeep of the Algiers Canal area is to be taken care of by the corps at federal expense, and that those provisions are not superseded by language in additional levee funding post-Katrina.

The corps disagrees and says operation and maintenance of that section of the system will need to be turned over to a local sponsor, in this case the Flood Protection Authority.

Hansen said the corps and the state work together on a number of restoration and protection projects and that any legal action the state decides to take will not affect those other projects.