The hurricane protection levee that is proposed to shield St. John the Baptist Parish's east bank from storm surge is set for a "go or no-go" grilling before senior Army Corps of Engineers officials next month in Washington. For a project that's been under consideration for four decades, the meeting constitutes the last big administrative review before the corps asks Congress to spend $881 million on construction.
The assessment by the corps' Civil Works Review Board is scheduled July 10. The board, typically composed of five of the agency's highest-ranking civilians from varying fields of expertise, will vet the proposed alignment of the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain hurricane risk reduction project to protect St. John and parts of St. Charles, St. James and Ascension parishes.
"It's like defending a thesis," said Jeff Varisco, project manager at the corps' New Orleans district office. "We've put a lot of time and money into this, and we have to go up and make a case that it's right."
The feasibility of such a levee has been authorized since the early 1970s, to blunt water charging into east bank communities from lakes Pontchartrrain and Maurepas. It was Hurricane Isaac's unprecedented surge, overwhelming LaPlace and parts of Reserve in 2012, that catalyzed the project.
In November, local corps officials settled on a levee alignment. If the review board approves the plan, that means corps officials may proceed to a public hearing on the final draft and submit it to Congress for funding consideration this fall.
Varisco said he's optimistic about the review board meeting and the chances for the project to get the green light. "We would probably know before going into that meeting if we were walking into a failure situation, and that's not the feedback I have right now," he said. "We're working very closely with the policy reviewers to do everything we can to avoid that situation."
The corps' draft plan is called Alternate C, which includes a new 18-mile levee between Bonnet Carre Spillway at Montz and the Hope Canal in Garyville. It would protect more than 7,000 structures from storms with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year, the so-called 100-year events. The corps has said this alignment costs less money and provides the most benefits of several options.
After fielding thousands of comments on the proposal, the corps has tweaked the project to include ring levees for parts of St. James Parish, where before the corps was looking to elevate thousands of structures. Alternative C also includes gate closures along Louisiana 3125 in St. James to alleviate flooding.
"It's come down from 1,570 structures being elevated to 20 or 30 that fall outside the ring levees or flap gates," Varisco said. "That's something we received a lot of public comment about. People were not happy about the elevations in place, and we listened, and we think this plan and working with St. James and (the Pontchartrain Levee District ) ... is a far more palatable plan."
St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom said she plans to attend the July meeting and is excited by the progress of the project. "This project is critical to protect our residents and our infrastructure, including the LaPlace water system and Interstate 10," Robottom said. "I am pleased with the movement on the project and will continue to push and support protection for our parish."