Hurricane protection levee far away in St. Charles

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 13, 1999

By LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / January 13, 1999

NEW ORLEANS – The West Bank hurricane protection levee in St. CharlesParish seems as far from becoming reality as ever.

At a press briefing held Wednesday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,corps spokesmen declared they were as far from agreement with Parish President Chris Tregre as they’ve ever been.

“We’ve exceeded their requirements,” Tregre commented. “But here, today,we’re still stuck in the mud.”Corps environmental resources specialist James Barlow Jr. added: “It’shard on us, also.”The levee project, to extend from behind Willowridge Subdivision in Luling to Paradis, has been embroiled in controversy for years. A time-line of thecontroversy released by Barlow dates back to November 1993.

Then, a pre-application meeting with parish officials resulted in the corps urging the parish to adopt a wetland/non-wetland alignment for the levee.

Tregre, in his drive for a necessary coastal-use permit from the Corps, has pushed for an alignment making use of donated rights-of-way from 16 local landowners and the ready avenue of a pipeline crossing behind Boutte.

That alignment, Tregre told the Corps, would consequently cost $5.6million less, as that option involves lengthy rights-of-way acquisition, possibly through expropriation, from 40 property owners..As to the volume of wetlands enclosed, the Corps insists Tregre’s alignment encloses 2,700 acres of wetlands, especially along the reach along the Blouin Canal south of Boutte.

In that stretch, the natural sheet-flowing of tidal water would be impeded, even with the addition of 40 48-inch culverts.

Tregre insisted in response the culvert, with the addition of a borrow canal inside the levee, would provide the necessary sheet-flow without causing the elevation of the marsh to drop below two and a half feet.

As to the Corps’ accounting of affected acreage, Tregre said its count is wrong, that only about 1,600 acres are involved and that number is grossly exaggerated. Part of that count is 800 acres already enclosed by leveesand part of a force-drain system which would not be further impacted.

Another 700 acres along the Paradis Canal will not be adversely affected, Barlow said. However, Tregre added he’s been told it was included in theCorps’ 3,000-acre count.

By his latest estimate, the only acreage of wetlands to be adversely affected would be the line of the actual levee itself, perhaps a total of 200 acres.

Barlow continued, “We have regulations we must follow, especially with projects which destroy large amount of wetlands, where reasonable alternatives are possible.”The Corps spokesman continued, “Most everything we have permitted in neighboring parishes is along the wet/nonwet alignment.”Tregre and the Corps are also at loggerheads as regarding the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency. Barlow said if the Corps were to pushTregre’s alignment, the EPA would demand a costly and time-consuming environmental impact study.

Tregre insisted this week he met with EPA officials two years ago and was told a full EIS was not necessary. The parish president added anengineering firm was hired, Shred-Kuyrkendall & Associates, which did a partial EIS, based upon the EPA requirements. “We went out and did that,”Tregre added.

In review of the timeline, the Corps received an application for construction from the Parish in June 1994. Due to a lack of informationreceived, a public notice for the application was not called until December 1994. In May 1995 the application was returned for lack of necessaryinformation.

A modified application came back to the Corps in August 1996, a public notice was issued the next month, and objection letters were received by the Corps from the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.In March 1997 the Corps asked the parish for more background information to respond to the objections. Revised drawings were received in August,and more information was received in September 1997.

In February 1998, after six months of review, the parish application was rejected. More information was submitted by the parish and, by July 1998,”a pattern has become established for the Corps to request information from St. Charles Parish officials, then be forced to ask again because ithas been received only in part or not at all.”In November 1998 the Corps prepared a new levee alignment, and the parish responded by asking for a delay to give time for another meeting.

That meeting was held Dec. 1, where the Corps agreed to defer action untilmodified alignment data is submitted. As of this month, that data has notyet been received.

John Hall of the Corps added, “We’re not sitting here with arbitrary authority. We have to walk the center line. We don’t have an enormousamount of wiggle-room.”However, Hall continued, “We have a wetlands problem with St. CharlesParish that sticks out like the Florida Peninsula.”

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