Could bill help speed La. coastal work?
Louisiana lawmakers say a newly passed water-projects bill, while providing no money directly, could help speed the state’s efforts to fight flooding and coastal erosion.
The U.S. Senate voted 99-1 today to approve America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, which the House passed unanimously last month. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill into law within the next few days.
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.
“On our current trajectory, the corps will finish its $100 billion of backlogged, federally authorized projects approximately never,” Graves said in a news release. “We have to stop pushing paper and start turning dirt. Fundamental changes are needed, and this bill begins moving us in that direction.”
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 from the Defense Department to 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.
“There are literally tens of billions of dollars in authorized Corps of Engineers projects in Louisiana,” Graves said. “If we are going to restore our coast and protect our communities, we must change the way these projects are developed and delivered.”
The biggest corps project locally is the Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane-protection system. The 98-mile system of levees, locks and floodgates, when built to corps standards, aims to protect most of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes’ 200,000 residents against Gulf of Mexico storms.
For years, local officials have criticized the corps for excessive delays and Congress for failing to put up any of the $10.8 billion the agency says it will cost to protect against a 100-year-storm. Terrebonne’s Levee Board has forged ahead with an interim flood-protection system, spending $400 million in local and state tax money.
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.
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said in a news release that the newly approved water bill includes a provision that would “expedite” Morganza, though it remained unclear whether that would have any practical effect.
Morganza could benefit if efforts to streamline permitting and approval processes yield results, Terrebonne Levee Director Reggie Dupre said in a telephone interview.
“But to expedite completion of Morganza,” Dupre said, “what we really need is a federal appropriation.”
-- Executive Editor Keith Magill can be reached at 857-2201 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter