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St. John Parish leaders angle for Lake Pontchartrain levee project input

LAPLACE — Land surveying will begin next month for a West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Levee set to be complete by the end of 2023, though it’s unclear what role St. John the Baptist Parish will play in planning and construction.

Parish Council members recently raised concerns over information access and hiring opportunities for local contractors.

Chris Gilmore, senior project manager for the Corps of Engineers, said public meetings would be held in St. John Parish as the levee nears construction.

The fully-funded $760 million project involves two years of planning and three years of construction to provide 100-year storm surge protection to more than 100,000 River Region residents.

While the levee will protect against rising lake levels, it is not designed to drain rainfall on an average day, according to Gilmore.

“We just recently requested right of entry (from landowners) to go out and start to take surveys, borings and other field investigations,” Gilmore said.

“We are just starting to get that right of entry back, and we should be back out in the field, doing all of our field investigations after the first of the year. Once we have more useful information, the Corps of Engineers will set up and advertise public meetings in St. James and St. John.”

According to Gilmore, field investigations yield information necessary to identify the best track for the final levee design, expected to cover 18 miles across St. John, St. Charles and St. James parishes.

Approximately 20 landowners have been contacted for right of entry, and follow-up land improvements and design work will total an estimated 35 percent of the total budget.

Detail design mapping will begin between February and March, Gilmore said.

The first construction contract will be awarded around early 2020, and Gilmore said it’s too early to say how many contractors will be utilized.

Construction will be a massive undertaking requiring approximately 9 million cubic yards of material — enough to fill two Superdomes.

Councilman Larry Snyder was concerned there is no solid plan to involve local contractors in the project.

“Our contractors here, the people we need to look out for, have no way to find out any of this unless we know what’s going on,” Snyder said. “How will we be able to get the information so we can pass it on to them?”

Councilman Marvin Perrilloux said St. John Parish should have its own project engineer with a seat at the table for each stakeholder meeting held by the Corps of Engineers and Pontchartrain Levee District.

Councilman Larry Sorapuru Jr. agreed with the sentiment.

Parish President Natalie Robottom said it’s beyond the Parish’s capacity to constantly monitor the project unless a scope of responsibilities is defined.

“What has been made clear to us is it’s a Corps project,” Robottom said. “The information we’re getting so far is limited, and what we’ve talked about is potentially drafting a scope of work that would help to represent us in (meetings) that we aren’t able to attend.”

According to Robottom, Parish leadership should compile a list of potential St. John contractors before it’s time for contracts to go out to bid.

“I think some of this work needs to be done on the front end, rather than when the contract is awarded,” Robottom said. “I’m interested in people with the Corps coming in and facilitating a meeting with the people in our parish.”

Gilmore said potential contractors are welcome to attend future public meetings, adding the only planned informational Industry Day passed. Gilmore said the Corps will consider placing contracts on the St. John Parish website.

Background

The West Shore Levee Project includes construction of an 18-mile levee system around the communities of Montz, LaPlace, Reserve and Garyville.

Earthen levee and floodwalls, four floodgates, four pump stations, a drainage canal running parallel to the levee, and a flood-side ditch connecting wetlands to the north and south of the structure will be built to a 2070 design elevation for anticipated sea level rise.

In St. James Parish, the recommendation is to construct a 10,000-feet barrier around Gramercy and Lutcher.

One-way flap gates to existing culverts under Highway 3125, small ring barriers around an estimated nine structures and elevation of approximately 14 residential structures was also proposed for St. James Parish in a Chief of Engineers report.

According to Ricky Boyet, chief of public affairs for the Corps of Engineers New Orleans District, the estimated cost for the project includes $613 million for initial construction and $105.09 million for future levee lifts. Within the budget, $91.4 million is allotted for environmental mitigation in the form of wetlands restoration.

The Corps of Engineers are conferring with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to ensure the West Shore Levee can intersect and co-exist with the planned Comite River Diversion Canal.