Authority to consider legal action to break logjam over MRGO

A long-standing dispute between the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over who should pay for coastal restoration work associated with the closing of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet could end up being decided in the courts.

The state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority will take up the matter of potential litigation against the corps during a meeting Tuesday at the Galvez Building in Baton Rouge.

“The deal is, the status quo is not working fast enough,” said Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. One of the projects that isn’t moving forward, he said, is the Gulf Outlet wetland restoration work.

“That project is basically at a standstill right now. It’s not going anywhere,” he said.

The issue started with a renewed push for the closure of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The MRGO was widely criticized not only for destroying coastal wetlands during construction of the channel in the 1960s, but also for the way the channel widened over the years due to bank erosion.

In addition, the channel was cited as a continuing problem for coastal wetlands since it funneled salt water into freshwater marshes, adding to the wetland loss in areas such as Lake Borgne.

Congress approved the closure of the channel in the federal Water Resources Development Act of 2007, and that work was completed with a rock barrier in 2009.

Also included in the 2007 act was a directive to come up with a restoration plan to help repair coastal wetlands that were damaged as a result of the channel.

State coastal officials have long maintained that the congressional authorization that OK’d the MRGO closure at 100 percent federal cost also applies to the coastal restoration work associated with the channel.

The corps, on the other hand, maintains that the authorization doesn’t specifically state that the restoration work is 100 percent federal, which means the agency needs to follow regulations in the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 that require a cost-share partner.

The corps recommended a plan for restoring 57,000 acres in October 2012 — an unusual step since there was no local cost-share sponsor to pick up 35 percent of the project’s estimated $3 billion cost.

The state has agreed to be the local sponsor for the work, as it has for many other restoration and levee protection projects, but it has insisted that being the local sponsor doesn’t include any financial commitment.

“We can’t step out and fund other people’s responsibility,” Graves said.

Since the MRGO restoration plan was recommended by the corps in 2012, he said, the state has been talking with corps officials and others to try to work out the differences about who will pay for the work, but those conversations have failed to produce agreement.

In addition, there were discussions about having the issue clarified legislatively, but it was decided that the language was already clear and that other legislative remedies would go against a congressional ban on earmark legislation.

“We have got to break the logjam here,” Graves said. “This (a lawsuit) is probably the only way to break the logjam.”

Ken Holder, chief of public affairs with the New Orleans corps district, said in an emailed statement: “At this point, to my knowledge there is no pending legal action against the corps by CPRA. To comment on the ‘what if’ and ‘what could be’ would be purely speculative and could cause more confusion than clarity.”