Morganza-to-the-Gulf will never be completed; so who’s kidding whom?
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 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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org