Public weighs in on plans for Category 5 levees
Congress awaiting coastal strategy draft
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
By Mark Schleifstein Staff writer
LAFAYETTE -- A group of public officials and business and environmental leaders began an effort Monday to develop a plan to protect coastal Louisiana from the storm surge of a Category 5 hurricane while also protecting the coast's fragile ecosystem. Advertisement
The Army Corps of Engineers must send a first draft of the plan, dubbed the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Plan, to Congress by June 1, with a final version due a year later.
Several hundred people gathered Monday at the Cajundome to propose alternate routes for a series of levees and gate structures aimed at providing enhanced storm protection in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The meeting kicked off public participation in the drafting process.
Levee board reform is key
More than half of the $20 million to pay for the planning effort is linked to approval of a consolidated levee district structure for the New Orleans area, a reform facing a doubtful future in the Legislature's special session that ends Friday. Corps project leader Edmund Russo said the initial draft must be done by May so it can be vetted by corps leadership and higher-ups in the Bush administration.
The corps already has put together a quick sketch of a series of larger levees and gates for Louisiana's coastline based on existing or proposed levee systems. The initial estimate for building the levees is between $32 billion and $33 billion, based on how much it would cost to raise existing and proposed levees to 30 feet high and armor them to prevent erosion, said Carl Anderson, a corps project manager.
Included in the southeastern Louisiana part of that initial sketch are higher versions of the proposed Morganza to the Gulf of Mexico system stretching from west of Houma to Golden Meadow; the Golden Meadow to Larose levee system; a levee system to run from Larose along Louisiana 657 to Jean Lafitte in Jefferson Parish; and connections with a series of levees stretching down the east and west banks of the Mississippi River along existing levee routes.
In the area immediately around New Orleans, the corps' sketch includes a realignment around the western side of Lake Borgne, then along U.S. 90 and up the western side of the Pearl River into St. Tammany Parish. This set of alignments also includes raising the height of the Lake Pontchartrain lakefront levee in Jefferson Parish.
'Great Wall of Louisiana'
Mississippi River Basin Alliance spokesman Doug Daigle dubbed the corps' sketch "the Great Wall of Louisiana" and urged that it be broken in a variety of locations to allow unimpeded water flow from upland areas to the Gulf.
Al Naomi, a corps planner who has been working on Category 5 levee plans for several years, said the corps' sketch is just that: a starting point for discussion. A separate series of alignments recommended by a variety of federal and state natural resource agencies seemed closer to Daigle's recommendation.
Those alignments were designed by representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the state departments of Natural Resources and Wildlife and Fisheries.
Louisiana State University geologist Ivor van Heerden, who has led a team of forensic engineers from LSU in an investigation into reasons the New Orleans area's levees failed during Katrina, presented an alignment for the New Orleans area that included running a breakwater across the middle of Lake Borgne to cut off surge from reaching the Industrial Canal through the "V" formed by the existing Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet levee in St. Bernard Parish and the levee along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in eastern New Orleans.
Several of the plans call for some sort of gates to be built at the Rigolets and Chef Menteur passes to stop surge from entering Lake Pontchartrain during storms.
Mitigating wetland damage
Others, such as the alignment proposed by the city's Bring New Orleans Back Committee, would include a weir or gate on the MR-GO where it joins the Intracoastal Waterway that would allow ships to enter the Industrial Canal's port facilities. Another weir might be built farther east on the MR-GO at Pass a Loutre, which once was a natural ridge.
A variety of environmental scientists and activists urged the corps to comply with the congressional requirement that the larger levees be built in conjunction with plans to restore wetlands along the coastline, and that any damage to wetlands caused by levee construction be mitigated.
Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation spokesman John Lopez said the corps should use the foundation's proposal for a multiple-lines-of-defense strategy in approaching the levee and wetlands restoration efforts, and corps officials agreed they are looking at such plans to restore existing ridges of abandoned waterways and the remains of barrier islands as starting points for some projects.
Much of the planning is still awaiting answers to a few key questions: What kind of storm should the levee be designed for and can engineers figure out a way of quickly building a levee without having to come back in a few years to raise it because of the rapid subsidence occurring all along the coast?
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Mark Schleifstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3327.