Morganza project wins congressional praise

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It’s not as universally beloved as motherhood or apple pie, but the “Morganza to the Gulf” levee and flood-control project won bipartisan praise from Louisiana Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who are eager to take credit for its imminent reauthorization.

Maybe especially eager: This is, after all, an election year, with the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Mary Landrieu the big prize.

News of the House-Senate agreement on the overall Water Resources Reform & Development Act started leaking last week, and Landrieu issued a news release Friday pointing to her repeated badgering of the Republican chairman of the relevant House committee to include Morganza in the final deal.

It had been left out of the House-passed version of the bill but it was part of the Senate-passed version.

The agreement on the measure, including Morganza, is the product of a House-Senate negotiation, and is expected to soon go before the House and the Senate for final congressional approval.

Landrieu’s Republican seatmate, David Vitter, is not running for re-election this year, although he is a candidate for governor in 2015. He, too, put out a news release Friday announcing the agreement.

As the ranking member of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over the water act, Vitter is credited by all camps for the role he played in advancing Louisiana’s interests in the bill.

His initial release merely mentioned Morganza among several provisions of the agreement. Just to be safe, he came out with a Morganza-centric release Monday.

That left Landrieu’s main Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, to chime in, which he did Thursday. He took credit for spearheading no fewer than 14 provisions in the agreement, ranging from streamlining environmental reviews and feasibility studies to reforming vegetation management. And he got the House committee chairman, Bill Shuster, of Pennsylvania, to celebrate Cassidy’s key role in the deal.

So what’s all the fuss about?

It’s certainly a big project: Sprawling across Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes in an irregular arc bulging south of Houma, it includes nearly a 100 miles of earthen levees, floodgates and a lock complex on the Houma Navigation Canal.

Its goal is to protect land and residences from damage by hurricanes and other storms — a threat that has intensified as the coastline has deteriorated.

And it’s expensive: $10.3 billion, according to the latest estimates, with the federal government responsible for 65 percent of the cost and state and local governments picking up the rest.

But none of that money is appropriated by the Water Resources Reform & Development Act bill: It simply authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to include the project on its to-do list.

That’s a key step in the two-part federal spending process of authorization and appropriation. But the Corps already has a backlog of $60 billion in projects — and at current rates, the agency’s entire annual budget wouldn’t cover the federal share of the Morganza project.

The project actually has been authorized twice before, in 2000 for $550 million and in 2007 for $887 million.

Post-Katrina, the Corps revised its design to meet new Katrina-generated requirements, planning for taller levees extending further across the landscape. The resulting cost increase triggered the need for a re-authorization.