[StBernard] Hurricane surge-reduction system maintenance will be costly, for someone

Westley Annis Westley at da-parish.com
Tue May 31 08:32:54 EDT 2011

Hurricane surge-reduction system maintenance will be costly, for someone

Published: Monday, May 30, 2011, 7:30 AM Updated: Monday, May 30, 2011,
7:34 AM

By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune

As the Army Corps of Engineers completes its new "100-year" hurricane surge
reduction system, state and local officials are scrambling to figure out how
much the improvements will cost to operate and maintain.

Soon, they'll also have to figure out whether taxpayers are willing to foot
the additional costs, which could be as much as $38 million a year -- more
than half the combined budgets of the eight local levee agencies.

"And that doesn't include some of the things that aren't on the perimeter,"
said Bob Turner, executive director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood
Protection Authority-East. "It doesn't include internal levees. It doesn't
include the pump stations and drainage canals in St. Bernard. And it doesn't
include Mississippi River levee operation and maintenance increases,

Local officials argue that the $14.6 billion national investment in the new
system should be protected using federal money, at least for the three most
expensive navigation gates. But getting Congress to agree in an era of
austerity is going to be a hard sell, they admit.

Relying on local agencies unschooled in operating the larger structures
could be risky, said John Barry, vice president of the Southeast Louisiana
Flood Protection Authority-East, which would likely be responsible for
operating the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway gate in the Lake Borgne surge

"When things don't work, as is inevitably going to be the case, sooner or
later a barge is going to collide with some part of the gate. What happens
then?" Barry said. "We'll have to call in tugs and get some pretty
sophisticated repairs done, and that's a real problem."

In addition, the local levee agencies and the state are responsible for $1.3
billion in construction costs. At the state's insistence, the corps is
allowing those payments to be spread over 30 years, and the state has
already pre-paid more than $300 million to acquire land for parts of the new

The $38 million estimate provided to Turner by the corps also includes
expenses associated with Southeast Louisiana, or SELA, flood control
improvements in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, which are paid for with
post-Katrina congressional appropriations. Those costs would be the
responsibility of both the Sewerage & Water Board in New Orleans and
Jefferson's drainage department.

But operation of three big-ticket pieces of the levee system -- the Lake
Borgne surge barrier and its two navigation gates; the Seabrook surge and
navigation gate at the Lake Pontchartrain entrance to the Industrial Canal;
and the West Closure Complex navigation gate and pumping station on the West
Bank -- would represent the greatest share of the annual expenses for the
local levee districts.

The corps contends that the congressional legislation authorizing the levee
improvements requires the non-federal sponsors to pay for their operation,
and recognizes the obstacle that entails.

"They're staring at billions of dollars that they're going to have to pay
for in the near future," said Col. Ed Fleming, commander of the corps' New
Orleans District office. In addition to operation, upkeep and a share of
levee construction costs, the state also must pitch in for a variety of
coastal restoration projects that will protect the new system, he said.

Local officials say there's a limit to the amount of additional tax dollars
they'll be able to pry loose from residents still burdened with their own
Katrina recovery costs.

"We have been trying to educate our congressional delegation and others in
Congress that the nation has invested in these large billion-dollar type
facilities, and perhaps it's in the best interest of the nation to operate
and maintain those," just as similar structures in other countries are paid
for by their national governments, Turner said.

Other state and local officials say the gates are clearly part of the
nation's navigation system, and therefore should be operated by federal
authorities. Two of the three gates are located across segments of the Gulf
Intracoastal Waterway and the third, on Bayou Bienvenue, is used by fishing
and oil and gas vessels.

"This is a case of typical corps lawyering," said U.S. Sen. David Vitter,
R-La. "The corps would be liable for (operation and maintenance) costs if
it's a navigation project, so the corps says it's flood control, not
navigation. But the project is obviously both, and the gates in particular
are only there to be opened to allow ship traffic through. If that's not
navigation, I don't know what is."

Barry said he and other Louisiana officials have talked to members of
Congress and representatives of President Obama and the White House Office
of Management and Budget about the gates, without success.

"There's considerable sympathy for our position everywhere, but the problem
is this whole climate in Washington in terms of money," he said.

"When this whole thing started, sort of as a joke we said, 'OK, if it's
flood protection, we'll just close the gates,' blocking the use of the Gulf
Intracoastal Waterway by interstate shipping," Barry said. "Then everybody
will scream and the problem will get solved.

"But that may not be a joke anymore," he said.

Indeed, the East Bank and West Bank levee authorities created after Katrina
to oversee local levee districts are now discussing how to spread the costs
of the new system beyond the districts' tax bases and into neighboring

Before Katrina, each levee district was responsible for the full cost of
operating levees within its boundaries.

But the higher levees and floodwalls along the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet
in St. Bernard and the Lake Borgne barrier that straddles St. Bernard and
New Orleans also protect parts of Jefferson, and, arguably, even St. Charles

"The corps is building a complete system, and that system stretches from the
eastern end of St. Bernard Parish to the west, the Pontchartrain Levee
District," East Authority President Tim Doody said at a meeting of the
authority in March. "By law, we are in fact a levee district, and by law, we
can request a regional tax, if that is what we choose to do in order to
maintain and operate the entire system."

But just as in Congress, the idea of increasing taxes is likely to be a
difficult sell, one authority member said.

"With all due respect, I think that would only be second to reducing Social
Security by the U.S. Congress, asking Orleans and East Jefferson to support
the operation of the St. Bernard levee," said East Authority member Thomas
Jackson. He pointed out that the East Jefferson Levee District was severed
from the Pontchartrain district upriver in part because Jefferson officials
didn't want to pay for levee projects in St. Charles.

Turner, the east authority executive director, said the taxing problem's
complexity is best understood by looking at the Lake Borgne barrier. Finding
out the exact price tag for operating the new structures also is a problem,
said Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West President Susan

"At one point, the corps thought it would be about $4 million to operate and
maintain these structures. We had done some analysis of our own and come up
with between $5 million and $10 million. The corps has since revised that
figure and come up with about $5.4 million," she said.

That's almost the size of the present budget for the authority and the two
districts it oversees.

"We do not feel the levee authorities should be in the business of
regulating navigation, and during storm threats, that's exactly where we
would be," she said. "The navigation industry doesn't want us in that
business, either."

There's another, possibly much larger, financial problem facing West Bank
levee districts. Much of the new West Bank levees were built on rapidly
subsiding soils where levees never existed before.

"When you put in a brand new levee, you're obviously going to have a much
more rapid subsidence issue than when you've got an old levee that's been
settling for years that you're rebuilding or building back up," Maclay said.

Some levee sections may have to be raised again as soon as three years after
they're completed, she said.

Again, the corps contends that the initial authorizing legislation does not
cover future lifts, and no money was appropriated for that purpose, she

"I think the corps feels that would rightfully be their responsibility, but
without the authorization and appropriations, they can't do it," she said.

Meanwhile, the state is awaiting the results of a study by the Rand
Corporation on the costs the local levee agencies are facing and whether
changes in state legislation are needed, said Garret Graves, chairman of the
Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which acts as the state's
senior levee decision-making authority.

"We can't expect the costs to be flat, the same as pre-Katrina, considering
the $15 billion of work that's been done over the last few years," he said.

And the state, facing its own budget problems, is not likely to be in a
position to help, he said. The restoration authority approved the $300
million advance payment so that local agencies could afford the ongoing
costs, he said, although the state is still lobbying Congress to move
responsibility for the navigation gates to the corps.

"Our intention is the levee authorities and districts will pay the operation
and maintenance costs associated with these investments," Graves said.

Mark Schleifstein can be reached at mschleifstein at timespicayune.com or

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