The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave an important early nod Friday to an alignment of the long-discussed west shore hurricane protection levee project that excludes Ascension and St. James parishes from levee protection.
The decision is a setback for parish leaders and members of the congressional delegation who have advocated for a “locally preferred” option that would have included the two parishes in the proposed federal levee system along with St. Charles and John the Baptist parishes.
The corps’ new draft feasibility study and environmental impact analysis recommends an 18.3-mile, $447 million section of levees, flood walls and pump stations through the northern parts of St. Charles and St. John, protecting Mississippi River communities from Lake Pontchartrain storm surge.
The corps opened the 45-day comment period with the release of the draft report, an early step for a future “chief’s report” that could clear the way for funding.
If the corps holds to the tentatively selected plan after that period — when parish leaders promise to let their feelings be known — the corps will invest further study into that route only for a final report due in September 2014, officials said.
Some environmental groups saw the corps’ call Friday as pragmatic, balancing community and environmental demands. The route is a middle path that would not put as much wetlands acreage behind new levees as the locally preferred option, but would leave some wetlands for flood protection, they noted.
“There is some compromise in terms of environmental impact that we think is reasonable,” said John Lopez, director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation’s Coastal Sustainability Program.
But Ascension and St. James officials and members of the state’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, expressed disappointment that the levee project would not encompass more territory.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to pursue the option and levee alignment that best protects homes and businesses,” said John Cummins, press secretary for Cassidy.
“One cannot put a price on the safety of families protected from storm surge and flooding.”
Ascension Parish Councilman Randy Clouatre, president of the East Ascension drainage district, said he and other parish officials met with the corps earlier this year and got the feeling the agency was leaning toward what was recommended Friday, known as Alternative C.
“This has come as no surprise to me right now, the announcement today, but it is not written in stone yet,” Clouatre said Friday.
Versions of the west shore levee have been discussed since the mid-1960s, but the concept gained new momentum after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and last year after Hurricane Isaac inundated thousands of homes in LaPlace.
What the corps favored would stretch from a Bonnet Carré Spillway guide levee in St. Charles to the Hope Canal near Garyville in St. John.
The alignment would track pipeline corridors outside the fringes of developed areas, encompassing a 4-mile stretch of Interstate 10 near LaPlace and 16 square miles of wetlands.
As a “non-structural” form of flood protection, this concept also proposes home elevations and buyouts for 1,571 landowners in St. James Parish — just 90 would be bought out — costing an estimated $81.4 million.
When all the costs are factored in, including rights of way and wetlands mitigation, the alignment is estimated to cost nearly $881 million.
The “locally preferred option” favored by St. James and Ascension, as well as the Pontchartrain Levee District, calls for a 28-mile levee that would have tied into Ascension’s Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station farther west but also enfolded a vast swath of wetlands, including part of the Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area.
Known as Alternative D, that route generally tracks just north of Interstate 10 and would have provided 100-year storm levee protection for all of St. James and the southeast corner of Ascension.
Alignment D’s total cost, at $891 million, is the most expensive, but would be just $11 million more than what the corps has tentatively recommended.
A third alignment that also was not selected would have more closely tracked developed areas in St. Charles and St. John, enclosing fewer wetlands and costing nearly $888 million, the report found.
St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said Alternative C would put out “the welcome mat” for water to back up during hurricanes.
“St. James is going to be the only place west of the lake (Pontchartrain) that is wide open, wide open for havoc, so it is going to be a written invitation for the water to back up on us,” he said.
The corps’ draft study notes the possibility of flooding outside the Alternative C levee in St. James, in Gonzales in Ascension and French Settlement in Livingston.
Ricky Boyett, corps spokesman, said the final study will look at that.
Vitter charged Friday that President Barack Obama has so far failed to deliver on the promise he made during his visit to LaPlace last year after Hurricane Isaac. During the visit, Obama had said the government would find out what caused the hurricane-induced flooding and prevent it from happening again.
“This is disappointing — the locally preferred alignment would have offered a lot more protection for a lot more people for the same price,” Vitter said.
But when the costs and benefits of the three alternatives were calculated out to 2070, the corps found Alternative C had a highest cost-benefit ratio, 1.63. Alternative D had the lowest, 1.28.
Alternative D would cost local governments about $2 million more per year in operations and maintenance costs than Alternative C would, the corps found.
Boyett said the corps is required to look closely at the cost-benefit ratio when making project decisions.
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A copy of the report is available at www.mvn.usace.army.mil/About/Projects/WestShoreLakePontchartrain.aspx.