October 28, 2018
By: Keith Magill, HoumaToday.com
Morganza advocates say show me the money.
Louisiana lawmakers tout President Donald Trump’s signature of a major water projects bill as a step toward eliminating some of the bureaucracy that has slowed the state’s efforts to protect its coastal communities from flooding.
But advocates of the area’s biggest hurricane-protection project, Morganza-to-the-Gulf, reacted with mixed feelings.
The Morganza Action Coalition says some provisions in the bill could speed work on the system of levees and floodgates, designed to protect Terrebonne and parts of Lafourche from Gulf of Mexico storms.
“However, our concern moving forward still remains that not a single federal dollar has been appropriated to the 98-mile project and it has been entirely funded so far by local and state dollars,” said Jay Walker, the Houma-based group’s president. “If we are serious about long-term comprehensive flood protection for south Louisiana then it is time for the federal government to pay their fair share, especially considering the oil and gas and fisheries contributions our region provides to this nation.”
In recent weeks, Morganza advocates have urged the corps to spend federal money on Morganza by the end of 2019. Congress last authorized the project in 2014 as part of a water-projects bill that requires the federal government to start spending money on construction within five years. Unless that happens, the corps or U.S. lawmakers could ask Congress to scrap, or deauthorize, federal work on the project.
The corps estimates that building Morganza to the agency’s hurricane-protection standards will cost at least $10.8 billion. Frustrated by delays, Terrebonne’s Levee Board has built an interim system using more than $400 million in local and state tax dollars in hopes Congress will put up the money to upgrade it.
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said earlier that the newly approved water bill includes a provision that would “expedite” Morganza, though it remains unclear whether that will have any practical effect.
Trump signed America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 on Tuesday; the House and Senate approved it earlier this month.
The measure authorizes about $6 billion in federal flood-protection, navigation and related projects over 10 years. But Congress would have to put up the money in a separate appropriations bill, and, as critics have noted, often fails to do so. And that has contributed to a backlog of more than $100 billion in projects.
U.S. Rep. Garrett Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said he added several provisions aimed at reforming the Army Corps of Engineers. He has long contended the corps is at the center of bureaucracy that causes excessive delays for flood-protection and coastal restoration work across Louisiana.
“Getting these ideas across the goal line is a big deal for Louisiana – it means less bureaucracy and more turning dirt in our state’s fight to make our communities more resilient against flooding and hurricanes and to restore our coastal ecosystem,” Graves said in an news release. “This new law cuts the federal government red tape that so often gums up progress and begins the process of fundamentally transforming operations at the Corps to produce better, faster outcomes.”
The measure seeks to prevent redundancies and excessive costs and give local and state governments greater say over collaborative projects with the corps, he said. It would also shift the corps’ focus from “process and procedure to project completion.”
Graves said provisions he added to the bill would:
- Give Louisiana an estimated $500 million credit for coastal restoration and other projects it has taken on. The state could apply the credit instead of matching money for federal coastal work.
- Begin shifting the corps’ mission to a “civilian infrastructure agency.” Graves has backed a Trump proposal to move the corps’ sections responsible for hurricane protection and coastal work out of the Defense Department and into the Interior Department. The corps’ section that maintains navigable waterways would shift to the Department of Transportation.
- Force the corps to disclose internal costs and expenses.
- Eliminate a rule that requires the state and local levee districts to get duplicate permits when building federally authorized projects without the corps.
The conservative Heritage Foundation, however, says the bill offers little more than the status quo. Among its criticisms, the group contends the measure perpetuates Congress’ habit of authorizing projects it will never pay for and fails to ensure the work that does get done offers sufficient benefit to federal taxpayers.
“Simply reading through the contents of a water development bill is enough to make it clear that the goal is not to develop a comprehensive infrastructure plan, but rather to green-light a hodgepodge of projects that often have little or no value outside the immediate area,” Heritage Foundation researcher David Ditch wrote in a position paper on the bill. “The federal government should only get involved for critical projects of national value.”