Flood fight dominates river commission meeting
By: GEOFFREY STOUTE
BERWICK — Preliminary estimates of damage from this year’s high water fight along the entire Mississippi River and Tributaries Project totaled $1 billion and could take 10 years or longer to repair if federal funding is not increased.
Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, president of the Mississippi River Commission and commander of the Mississippi Valley Division, told those gathered on the MV Mississippi Friday that the Corps identified the $1 billion worth of work through a preliminary look at 93 areas, including levees and floodgates.
Walsh said the division is slated to receive $210 million in funds for work on the system’s Mississippi River and Tributaries Project for the 2012 fiscal year but has not received any emergency supplemental funding for the work. Walsh said he didn’t think there would be any, either.
In the New Orleans District, recovery work identified was repairs to levees and floodwalls, major structures as well as channel improvements and dredging.
Col. Edward Fleming, district commander of the Corps New Orleans District, said that scour holes about 30 feet deep were recovered on the back side of the Morganza Spillway structure when the waters receded.
Walsh said the rising floodwaters could be attributed to 600 to 1,000 percent more rain than normal in the last week in April and the beginning of May.
The flood was the first time that three floodways were operated at the same time — Bird’s Point-New Madrid Floodway (which helps reduce water levels in Cairo, Ill. at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers), and the Bonnet Carre and Morganza spillways.
“Every resource we had, we used, “ Walsh said.
While Walsh said no loss of life was suffered in the record flooding, about six million acres were covered with water.
However, “those were areas that were planed to be under water,” Walsh said.
Despite the challenges, Walsh said the way the system operated proved that work on the MR&T system is worth the money spent.
In the New Orleans District, Col. Edward Fleming said that the drought as well as the basin’s topography, were reasons the inundation maps released didn’t come to fruition.
He also noted that the Red and Ouachita rivers were not contributing, at times, to the Atchafalaya River’s flows because the amount of water pouring through the Old River Control Structure at Simmesport — where 30 percent of the Mississippi River is diverted down the Atchafalaya — was so great due to increased flows up north down the Mississippi.
“There were numerous days when the Red River was flowing north,” Fleming said.
Although the public was reached in multiple meetings and stakeholders were reached in daily conference calls, Fleming said communication was one thing he would like to improve.
He did, however, note the success of the Corps’ page on the social networking site Facebook, which received more than 5,000 hits.
“I’m not sure what this Facebook thing is, but I really like it and want some more of it,” he said.
He also said he would like to enhance the Corps’ liaison program with local governments, increase preparedness exercises and training, and work with inundation maps.
During the public comment period, St. Mary Parish and local officials thanked the Corps for their efforts this spring.
Many of the comments, though, centered around the need for a flood control structure in Bayou Chene.
Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte expressed the hope that the Corps take seriously the correlation between the Atchafalaya River and Lake Palourde, as well as other backwater areas; and build the structure to protect these areas.
Matte said flood control is needed to protect the area from backwater flooding, but he said it is nothing new, as it would only replace plans for the Avoca Island Levee extension south of Morgan City. Officials had previously wanted that system, but Corps officials said it has too many conflicting factors with the environment to construct.
Matte also expressed a need for an authorized channel depth of 20 feet in the Morgan City area.
St. Mary Parish Levee District Chairman Bill Hidalgo lobbied for the federal government to cover 100 percent of the costs of the Bayou Chene work this spring, which involved installing (and now removing) a barge and sheet pile to protect from backwater flooding.
Right now, the federal government is paying for 75 percent and the levee district is funding the other 25 percent.
“We, as a young levee district, that’s more than our budget,” Hidalgo told the commissioners, noting the district has borrowed money from the state and bonded monies.
He also asked for authorization to complete repairs to the federal levee system following the flood. Hidalgo said the local district would pay for the work because it knows the Corps does not have funding for it.
However, he requested that this local funding for these projects be used as the district’s match for other projects the district seeks to complete that will require matching funds.
Parish President Paul Naquin presented the Mississippi River Commission two resolutions — one requesting the Corps to support construction of the Bayou Chene flood protection structure and another thanking the Corps and commissioners for their work during the flood.
He also expressed support for the other projects presented by the local entities.
Jerry Gauthier, vice president of the Morgan City Harbor and Terminal District, asked for the commission’s help with dredging the Atchafalaya River and its Bay and Bar Channel to facilitate traffic.
“We didn’t create it,” Gauthier said of the sediment. “We just have to deal with it and we’re tryin to do that.”
“We’ve got so much silt coming down here that if anyone needs it, please come and get it,” Gauthier added.
He also asked the commission for help with Crewboat Cut, which was approved almost two years ago by the New Orleans District and now is awaiting the approval at the Corps’ headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Local maritime authorities are pushing for the waterway’s approval because it is nearly self-sustaining and local mariners say it is a quicker, more preferred route to the Gulf of Mexico.
In other dredging matters, Gauthier also expressed a need for the Corps’ help so that the port can continue its work to implement agitation dredging in its waters to attempt to keep sediment suspended and let currents take it down the river to the Gulf of Mexico.
If it works, “this will save millions and millions of dollars,” Gauthier said.
Randy Martel, representing Avoca Inc., also expressed a need to help solve tension between the federal and state governments about the state government’s unwillingness to fund its 15 percent cost-share of work for projects in the Coastal Wetlands Protection and Restoration Act.
While he understands the importance of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, he said marine traffic that uses waterways like the GIWW spur erosion as they roar past private lands.
He also expressed that when projects are considered, local landowners are consulted. Martel said landowners want to help, but they need to be included in the process.