Supervisors oppose La. levee study
By Dwayne Bremer
Jan 15, 2013, 17:04
Some have said it will never happen – others have said it would be too expensive and that the government would never allow something that would adversely affect South Mississippi. Don't tell that to Louisiana, however, which appears poised to move forward with plans that include building new levees to close off the Lake Pontchartrain basin.
Last month, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority (SLFPA) requested comments on its plan for the New Orleans East Land Bridge Study.
The study, in part, includes investigating the possibility of a 24-foot barrier levee which will close or partially close the Lake and protect the North Shore of St. Tammany Parish.
The request for comments apparently went unnoticed by many of Mississippi's political leaders.
The Hancock County Board of Supervisors was the only entity in MIssissippi to file a written objection to the study, despite the previous research which says any new levee construction in Louisiana could have dramatic effects on many areas in South Mississippi.
"This is way bigger than us," Board of Supervisors Vice-President Steve Seymour said Monday. "We need to get our state and federal leaders involved in this. These son-of-a-guns in Louisiana are just looking to protect themselves. All they are doing is working their way to the east. It's going to end up drowning us."
Hancock County Attorney Ronnie Artigues said Louisiana leaders plan on spending $76 million on the study, engineering, and design.
The $76 million does not include any construction costs, which have been estimated in the billions, officials said.
However, the fact that the Louisiana is willing to spend so much cash on a study and design shows it is serious about a future project, Artigues said.
After Hurricane Katrina, both Louisiana and Mississippi embarked on coastal restoration plans to limit damage from future storms.
In 2009, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers issued its technical report on the Louisiana Coastal Restoration Plan.
In its review, the Corps admitted the possibility of impacts to South Mississippi if new levees were built in South Louisiana.
The LACRP plan for Lake Pontchartain and eastern Louisiana included five options for future coastal protection.
Those alternatives include stand-alone coastal restoration (island and marsh restoration), buy-out plans, and the construction of flood control structures (levees and weirs.)
The alternatives are based upon four time-frames, the 50, 100, 500, and 1,000- year plans.
The LACRP said the levee and weir plan would be "significantly more effective for the surge events greater than the 100-year nonstructural plan, even providing significant risk reduction up to the 1,000-year event in some areas."
However, it also said the plan would potentially have "indirect environmental impacts and potential regional impacts to the Mississippi Gulf Coast."
The study says that Hancock County would suffer an estimated $760,000 per year in damages with the 50-year weir plan and as much as $2.5 million per year with the 1,000-year plan. Overall, the Corps predicts Mississippi could see as much as $9.5 million a year in damages with the 1,000-year weir plan.
Unlike the Louisiana plan, the Mississippi Coastal Restoration Project focused on non-structural ideas such as island and ecosystem restoration and a massive voluntary buy-out plan. Artigues said Mississippi's plan would be ineffective if new levees are built.
"We can't protect ourselves with non-structural measures, if Louisiana is allowed to build walls," he said.
Despite the Corps' research, Louisiana has continued to support the ideas of levees.
In 2009, former U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor said he believed the levee system was too expensive and it would never be built.
However, new funding sources such as BP may allow Louisiana to find additional cash for the project, officials said.
In May 2012, Louisiana's Coastal Master Plan was approved by a unanimous vote of the Louisiana legislature, Engineer Bryon Griffith of the engineering/consultant firm Dewberry said Monday. The master plan supported the new levee construction, officials said.
Artigues said Monday that the proposed SLFPA study represents a "dramatic, and potentially harmful, shift in policy."
"It was our initial understanding that the original scope of the SLFPA East Land Bridge study was to provide a series of short protection measures to degraded shorelines in order to restore and inhibit hydrologic connectivity between Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain," he said. "It is troubling and of great concern that the report now states that 'specific attention is given to acceptability criterion, and possible avenues for a more detailed environmental assessment of a high-crested levee at the East Land Bridge.' "The recently adopted Louisiana Coastal Master Plan eliminated previous non-structural programs. In addition, the plan requested $76 million for a Lake Pontchartrain barrier to include planning, engineering, and design to construct a levee to an elevation of 24.5 feet across the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans to interstate 59 north of Slidell. It is well understood and documented from previous modeling that a closure of the Lake Pontchartrain basin will impact water surface elevations, including surge and overland wave propagation, on the Mississippi Coast."
In addition to the potential harmful affects of new levee construction in Louisiana, recent changes in the national flood insurance plan could seriously affect South Mississippi of the levees are ever built, Griffith said.
Griffith and associates from Dewberry met with supervisors on Monday to discuss the potential levee system, as well as changes in the National Flood Insurance Plan and how it could affect Hancock County.
Griffith said if new levees were constructed in Louisiana, then the current DFIRM maps in South Mississippi could be be tossed.
"You may be at 22 feet now and have to go up to 26 or 27 feet or even higher," he said.
Griffith said studies show that if the base flood elevations were raised in Hancock County by three feet, then more than 7,000 homes currently in "dry areas" would fall into the special flood hazard area.
Griffith said residents and political leaders need to be aware of new legislation such as the Bigger-Waters Act.
"I don't see anybody talking about this and the implications are enormous, he said. "This group (SLFPA) has decided to protect itself with a wall. Louisiana has put a lot of time and money into informing its residents of what the potential effects are, but we cannot find that same effort in Mississippi."
Seymour said he believes the new legislation would mean Louisiana residents would be forced to build to new regulations if they did not have the levees.
"If you build a structural wall, than you do not have to build bird houses," he said. "You think they may have a motivation?"
In the county's objection to the SLFPA study, Artigues asked that no further action be taken on the proposed plan until an independent study of it effects on Hancock County and South Mississippi is completed.
On Tuesday, Artigues said the county is keeping all of its legal options open at this time; however, he feels that the entire Coast and state delegation need to get involved in the fight.
"Hancock County cannot fight this by ourselves," he said. "This is going to affect everyone from Pearl River County to Jackson County. It's not just a Hancock County issue, it's a Mississippi issue."
Neither Gov. Phil Bryant nor U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo's office responded to requests for comments by press time Tuesday.