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Morganza-to-the-Gulf will never be completed; so who’s kidding whom?

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by Len Bahr, PhD*

The Corps of Engineers released a draft report on the Morganza-to-the-Gulf (MTTG) coastal protection project that has been studied and restudied, cussed and discussed for at least 22 years. The public comment on this report closes February 18, i.e., today. The following essay includes my thoughts on the project, which I don’t think will ever be completed. If I’m right it’s very sad that so much time and money and emotion will have been invested in what I think is basically a flawed concept. Read on.

New Orleans has a three century history of increasing dependence on levees and pumps, as the developed area expanded from the relatively high land along the river and lake front into swamps formerly at sea level but now sunk far below that crucial datum. The ‘bowl’ that comprises most of New Orleans and much of Jefferson Parish is currently the only part of south Louisiana into which sea water would flow on a bright sunny day…were it not for levees.

Life in a giant bathtub behind a perimeter barrier and total dependence on engineered structures has become inculcated into the local culture. When some of the structures proved notoriously fallible in 2005 the Corps of Engineers got an unprecedented congressional windfall of $14 billion to bolster the failed flood protection system around New Orleans.

This fast-tracked ‘fix it’ project predictably triggered calls for ‘equal treatment’ by many residents of the Barataria/Terrebonne Basins between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers, which is ground zero for subsidence and land loss along the coast, but which remains slightly above sea level. That will change for the worse, however, if the residents adopt MTTG, a perimeter levee system that would impound the ‘protected zone’ and require perpetual pumping in the face of induced subsidence and accelerating sea level rise.

For over 22 years these hapless folks have been watching the gulf approach and pinning their hopes on the eventual construction of MTTG, a massive tall, wide levee with locks and gates to block storm surges, while allowing navigation and limited estuarine water exchange when no storm is imminent. In March 1991, when I first began working in the governor’s office of coastal activities, on my office wall at the State Capitol was a framed diagram showing the proposed alignment of a levee system below Houma. It was labeled Morganza-to-the-Gulf (MTTG).

I remarked to colleagues that such a levee would enclose and destroy vast areas of wetlands but I was told that, for better or worse, the MTTG project was politically sacred and should not be questioned. Since that time we know considerably more about our dynamic coast and how to sustain key areas, but the MTTG politics and levee alignment remain essentially unchanged.

The February 13 NY Times published this article by Michael Zimmelman describing the fact that the Dutch recently abandoned an effort to wall off the North Sea. This change of heart is absolutely relevant to the MTTG project. Here are two key quotes:

The Dutch are starting to let the water in. They are contriving to live with nature, rather than fight (what will inevitably be, they have come to realize) a losing battle.

Why? The reality of rising seas and rivers leaves no choice. Sea barriers sufficed half a century ago; but they’re disruptive to the ecology and are built only so high, while the waters keep rising. American officials who now tout sea gates as the one-stop-shopping solution to protect Lower Manhattan should take notice. In lieu of flood control the new philosophy in the Netherlands is controlled flooding.

Louisiana officials should be thinking along these same lines. In areas where the landscape is not already below sea level the focus should be on reducing flood risk for population centers with local, not regional measures.

On January 5 three Louisiana newspaper accounts were published about MTTG, which has become the largest, most expensive and most controversial so called ‘coastal restoration’ project ever envisioned for America’s DeltaAmy Wold reported on MTTG in The Advocate, Mark Schleifstein in The Times-Picayune  and Nikki Buskey in The Daily Comet.
The above media accounts quoted only project advocates, however, primarily state and local officials. Neither scientists nor representatives from non governmental organizations (environmental NGOs) were interviewed. The latter groups have been notoriously silent about the coastal damage that MTTG would inflict, not to mention the false expectation of safety that would be implied by its construction. I can only conclude that the absence of vocal opposition to MTTG reflects a reluctance to cross swords with Governor Jindal, who strongly backs the project.
After all these years, MTTG has evolved into a $13 billion, 98 mile long complex of massive levees and gates designed to reduce flood risk for residences and businesses from so-called 100 year storms, expected to occur with a likelihood of 1% during any given hurricane season. This is the same standard of risk reduction as the $14 billion project just completed for southeast Louisiana. It’s important to remember that both projects are purely people protection measures, NOT multi-purpose coastal restoration efforts. The difference is that the huge environmental bill for wetland impoundment has already been paid in full in the New Orleans area, a cost that is still avoidable in the vicinity of Houma.
According to the corps, not exactly an objective voice, the long-delayed, extremely pricey MTTG project is still worth building, even with an expanded footprint, a $13 billion price tag and no realistic funding plan on the horizon. Knowing how much local and state officials want MTTG the corps is now busily exploring cost-cutting measures, as Jordan Blum reported in The Advocate.
Even were funding not an insurmountable hurdle, this project would fail on technical grounds, which explains why no academic scientist to my knowledge has endorsed it and most think it’s a bad joke. Other than the infamous $126 million BP sand berm fiasco, on which no one’s life depended, MTTG is the single serious coastal project that remains alive despite a consistent lack of independent, objective technical support.

On February 17 Amy Wold reported in The Advocate that three public meetings have been scheduled for February 19, 20 and 21st to present the draft 2014 update of the Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast.

In this 2014 draft plan $120 million (similar to the cost of the temporary sand berms) is allocated for FY 2013 for construction of a preliminary phase of MTTG, (project TE-64), which is planned to be completed by July 15. MTTG is by far the most expensive project listed in the plan.The project is mentioned on pp 21, 22, 30, 41, 49, 57 and in Appendix A of this plan. I wonder where this $120 million is coming from. Will serious money from fines against BP be invested to build pieces of a project that will never be completed?

Having been virtually home bound recently and unable to attend meetings on MTTG, I’ve relied on reports from colleagues. One of these folks attended the public meeting on MTTG in Houma on January 31 and sent a list of about 40 comments, including the following thirteen.

Louisiana officials apparently asked that a critical project to divert Atchafalaya River water into eastern Terrebonne marshes be suspended. If true this decision is huge in that it eliminates the only feasible project of a scale that could sustain marshes and swamps in southeast Terrebonne Parish, the least sustainable part of the system. The state largely wrote it off in the Master Plan, substituting some marsh creation, which is not sustainable over the long term.

Terrebonne Parish has already built 9 miles of levees on its own dime, following the Corps/EPA 404 permitting process. The local strategy is obvious – once a part of MTTG is completed, appealing to Congress for a federal upgrade is far more likely to succeed.

EPA found lots of inaccuracies in the corps’ MTTG document. The project is designed to be mostly built on existing levees/hydrological barriers, some of which are wildlife refuge levees. This decision was presumably a rationalization to show that some hydrologic barriers were already in place and raising them would do no harm.

MTTG is an extremely complicated system with 22 gates on navigable waterways. Coordination of operating these gates under storm watch seems highly problematic.

The current cost, $10.3 billion in construction cost, $13 billion with O&M, may not include the cost of new lifts needed every 20 years or so. This is analogous to the current dilemma of giving responsibility for maintaining the levees and other infrastructure in the newly completed New Orleans project to local sponsors that can’t afford the cost.
Mitigation for extensive environmental damage on the protected side of the MTTG levees will be implemented on the “flood side” adjacent to the levee. That decision is very problematic in that tens of thousands of acres of wetlands are behind the levee (p 79-80).
The gate closure regime would change dramatically over time, as MTTG evolved from an open to a closed system. Sea level rise estimate (p 81) used the intermediate level, not the high level; now the gates would be closed for 1.5 days a year but gate closure will change over time. By 2085 the gates would be closed virtually year round – even under the intermediate projection of sea level rise. There would obviously be local pressure for frequent closure; gates on the east side of the area are closing more frequently now already. Increased closure will impact fisheries and water quality. 
The water exchange gates would choke off the cross sectional area available for water exchange, thus increasing the velocity of flow through the gates. The report downplays this effect that would accelerate erosion.
The report is not persuasive in showing that alternatives to the MTTG perimeter flood protection system have been adequately explored.

When the Morganza project was authorized in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), its estimated construction cost was $887 million. Compare that number with the current estimate of $13 billion.

Changes in hurricane levee design standards, especially after Hurricane Katrina, have caused the project to exceed its authorized cost estimate by far more than 20%. This triggered an automatic requirement for re-authorization under WRDA Section 902.

To date, Congress has not appropriated any construction funds for MTTG, which seems ever less likely to happen, given the current fiscal climate.State and parish officials express frustration at the long history of non-construction on this project, dating back 20 years. Federal “foot dragging” is commonly given as the primary reason, but the RPEIS and the accompanying “Post-Authorization Change Report” (PAC) give a fuller picture, and an understanding of why this ambitious and controversial project is likely never to be fully completed.

Get those comments in!

*Founding editor leonardbahr@gmx.com

 

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  1. “I feel obligated to note that the bureaucratic behemoth that is the Army Corps of Engineers is virtually unaccountable to the citizens it protects.”

  2. the levee also doesn’t do something very Vital: protect people.

    that is why GRN has asked for accelerated buyout monies be made available NOW for places like Isle de Jean Charles, which will receive MORE flood water because of the MTTG alignment.

    The Parish likes to crow that its population is growing. ok. but the benefits in this B/C are based on the population growing to 200k, which is based on an oil boom.

    Meanwhile, the PAC document itself describes that the population of the places down bayou from Houma (Chauvin, Dulac, Theriot) are losing population.

    And the document contains no mention of Biggert Waters.

    Last time i went to Schmoopy’s in Dulac, dude tried to sell me the place, that’s all i’m saying.

    scott

  3. Sultan Alam says:

    Len
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the MTTG project characteristics and objectives and eventual costs. I think I will go along with the idea of living in harmony with the nature. Especially the total population of Louisiana is not very large compared to the surface area where the land is not flooded often or ever. So a solution would be where the total cost of rehabilitating the endangered population would be much less compared to the construction of expensive structures for protecting the area and also creating additional negative environmental impacts.
    Sultan Alam

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