Mark Schleifstein / 29 July 2020

A number of major Louisiana water infrastructure projects, representing potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to be spent on studies and construction projects, were included in legislation approved by the U.S House of Representatives on Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, inserted the Louisiana projects – ranging from speeding the deepening of the Houma Navigation Canal in Terrebonne Parish and the Baptiste Collette Bayou Canal in Plaquemines Parish to requiring a long-dormant federal-state task force to identify new ways of funding coastal restoration within a year — into the bill during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting two weeks ago.

The bill, the Water Resources Development Act, contains language authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to begin or continue water control, navigation and levee system projects and studies across the nation, and to determine how money is used to operate and maintain existing and new projects.

A Senate version of the bill, which includes several of the same Louisiana projects, was approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in May. It has not been scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor. Assuming that bill is approved, differences between the two versions must be worked out in a joint conference committee before final approval, something that would have to happen before Congress enters a recess in late October in advance of the national elections.

The Graves amendments to the House bill included language requiring the Corps to include a review of the Mississippi River’s contribution to algae blooms that create the low-oxygen “dead zone” along Louisiana’s coast.

Another Graves amendment is designed to allow the Corps to issue long-term contracts – up to five years – for dredging the lower Mississippi River to prevent shoaling and sand bars. Present rules require the Corps to issue contracts on an as-needed basis, and the change could both reduce dredging costs resulting from those shorter contract periods, and assure that the Corps budgets more accurately.

Repeated high river periods during the past 10 years have resulted in shoaling that has required ocean-going vessels to reduce the amount of cargo they can carry on entering the river, costing millions of dollars in transportation costs.

Graves was unsuccessful in adding an amendment that would have said that past federal appropriations of about $30 milllion for the $14 billion Morganza-to-the-Gulf project gave it the status of a ”new start” under water resources law. Such a designation would have allowed the project to be considered for funding in the Corps’ annual budget.

The state, plus Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, have already contributed more than $450 million to the project, which has been used to build initial lifts of the 92-mile levee system.

The House took up the bill Wednesday under a suspension of its rules, which prohibits floor amendments, and allowed it to be approved by voice vote.

Other Louisiana provisions added by Graves and included in the approved bill:

  • Authorization of a $253 million project to deepen the Houma Navigation Canal from a presently authorized depth of 15 feet to 20 feet. In 2017, the Corps accepted a feasibility study developed by the state Department of Transportation and Development outlining the plan, but the project has needed congressional authorization. Congress must also still appropriate two-thirds of the construction costs, with the state paying the other third.
  • Authorization of the dredging of Belle Pass at the mouth of Bayou Lafourche to allow larger ships to enter Port Fourchon.
  • Authorization of a $45 million project to deepen Baptiste Collette Bayou in Plaquemines Parish from its present authorized depth of 14 feet to 22 feet where it crosses through wetlands and 24 feet in open water, to provide greater access to shipping. The material dredged from the canal would be used to build wetlands in nearby areas.
  • Language allowing Louisiana to renegotiate its share of the cost of the post-Katrina levee system in New Orleans with the Corps. The state must pay about $100 million a year for 30 years for its share of construction costs and interest, and the renegotiation could reduce the annual charge by more than half.
  • Authorizing a study of the lower Mississippi River watershed by the Corps, aimed at reducing the need to use the Bonnet Carre Spillway during high river years. The study would require the Corps to consider various proposals included in Louisiana’s coastal Master Plan, including proposals for a sediment diversion at Ama and a freshwater diversion at Union on the river above New Orleans; a proposal to increase the flow of water from the Atchafalaya River into the Terrebonne Basin; a Manchac Landbridge Diversion to divert water and sediment from the Bonnet Carre Spillway into wetlands to its west.
  • Requiring the Corps to speed its work on feasibility studies for the ongoing Amite River flood control project,  and on the Upper Barataria Basin coastal storm risk management project, which is expected to result in levee improvement recommendations.
  • The Corps also would be required to conduct a feasibility study aimed at reducing the risk of flooding in Tangipahoa Parish.
  • The law also requires the Corps to submit a report to Congress within a year from a federal-state Coastal Louisiana Ecosystem Protection and Restoration Task Force that was established by Congress in 2007, but whose members have never been appointed.

The report is supposed to summarize task force activities and recommendations for addressing “conservation, protection, restoration and maintenance of the coastal Louisiana ecosystem,” and the financial contributions made to those efforts by the organizations represented on the task force.