Experimental levee construction in parishFeb 22nd, 2011 | By Michelle Provencher | Category: news
Hurricane season is months away, however the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is behind schedule on increasing the height of 15 miles worth of Mississippi River levees in Plaquemines Parish.
The Corps presented a plan of attack to heighten the parish levees in time to meet their June 1 deadline – the start of hurricane season – at a special meeting of the Plaquemines Parish Council on Feb. 16.
This method of levee increasing is somewhat experimental, as Colonel Edward Fleming, of the Corps, said it has not been used in the parish before; he could not immediately come up with the success rate of the new methodology from other locations where it was in use.
Rather than widening the levees that already exist in the parish, then adding to the height – thus maintaining the same degree of slope – Fleming said the levees would instead have dirt piled solely on top, not to the sides.
This would allow the levees to reach a necessary height, but unlike usual levees, it would also increase the slope since the width was not increased as well.
“What we’re going to do is increase height [between] one to five feet,” said Fleming. “We also have to make [the levees] wider. To do that, we need real estate.”
The steep levees would only be a temporary fix, until the Corps gained the property right-of-ways to expand the levees widthwise, as well.
The process to acquire the right-of-ways is time consuming, and Fleming said the project could not be completed by June 1 if done in the usual fashion.
To expedite the process, the levees will be fixed in phases. The new levee building technique will be used at first. Fleming said phase two, or the resilient phase, will begin in about one year, and would make the levees look more traditional. The result of phase two would be permanent.
Whether phase one would have to be demolished before the resilient phase could begin has not yet been determined.
“We’re still doing analysis now to build right on top, and not have to tear it all out,” said Fleming.
Phase one costs $56 million to construct, and Fleming said the money is already in place. The funding for phase two still needs to be acquired, and residual money left over from other projects would cover the expense, but needed Congress’ approval to be transferred, according to Fleming.
Due to the dramatic slope that would be created for the first year, grass could not be planted on the levee additions; it would be too steep for parish lawn mowers to access and could not be maintained.
The council seemed skeptical of the plan, as grassroots are what typically hold a levee together. Frequently, without grass, the dirt piles are washed away by wind and rain.
“Why should we be the guinea pig?” asked Councilman Anthony Buras, District 5. “They have a self-imposed deadline. Do it right. Why waste [$56 million]?”
Fleming defended the stability of the new style levees, and said that a chemical mixed in with the dirt keeps it compounded and simultaneously stunts grass growth.
The presentation at the special meeting took place beside the Council on Aging building, within view was the test levee.
The Corps has expanded a section of the levee using the new approach; the council looked to the test plot as an example of what would be expected throughout the parish.
While Fleming said the mix of herbicide and soil would discourage grass, two test patches on the levee addition that were sprinkled with seeds were covered in healthy-looking grass.
Fleming said that the contractor responsible for building phase one of the levees would be kept on board for 360 days after completion to make sure grass does not grow.
Buras introduced legislation to grant the Corps right of entries at four general locations stretching from Oakville to Oak Point, Belle Chasse to Oak Point, English Turn Bend to Belle Chasse, and Mississippi River and tributaries. The introductions may be voted on at the council’s next regularly scheduled meeting, which is Feb. 27. No action was taken at the short-notice special meeting, and council members Burghart Turner, District 6, Byron Marinovich, District 8, and Marla Cooper, District 9, were all absent.
Other matters with regards to levee protection have been an issue in the parish recently, as cost increases to fund levee construction in Plaquemines were neglected from President Obama’s 2011 Budget.
Plaquemines Parish officials are claiming that the federal government promised to fully fund a levee restoration project in the parish since the levees were compromised by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“We have promises from the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration early on, that rebuilding up the levees that were damaged due to Katrina, were going to be rebuilt to 100 year protection, 100 percent funded by the federal government,” said Council Chairman Dr. Stuart Guey, District 4. “Those were the promises that were made.”
After the federal budget was released on Feb. 14, the Army Corps of Engineers notified state government that they would be responsible for the 35 percent cost increase of the $1 billion total for levee construction costs running the length of New Orleans to Venice.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said that Congress told the Corps to build the levee, and the parish should not be punished due to the Corps’ cost miscalculation.
“At this point, we’re still evaluating our options,” said Guey. “[Senator David Vitter and Plaquemines President Billy Nungesser] are working with state and federal officials to see if we can’t get them to hold through to their statements that were made earlier.”
Nungesser said that the money is in place for now, and time is of the essence with this project.
“Hopefully we can start that levee, so we don’t see that money moved somewhere else,” said Nungesser. “Nothing is in stone until it’s there, which is why I want to get started.”
The parish president said he hopes to have the levee system underway this year.
“My goal is to get it started, but also to press the Corps to fund it the way Congress told them to, 100 percent.”