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Daily Comet - Efforts Aim to Secure Money for Hurricane-Protection Levees

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By Jeremy Alford

Members of Congress are working to squeeze issues related to Terrebonne Parish's long-awaited hurricane-protection system into a federal water-resources bill.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are preparing to seek more money from the Legislature for construction needs.

At the local level, the parish Levee Board is looking forward to April to sell $100 million in bonds connected to the half-cent sales tax local voters passed in December.
It is a critical time for the Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane-protection project, which is expected to cost nearly $13 billion.

As planned, it would include levees reaching 26 feet in height in some areas and a floodgate as tall as 18 feet, all stretching from U.S. 90 in Gibson to La. 1 in Lockport.

Long thwarted in their efforts to win federal money, local levee officials are forging ahead on a scaled down version of the system that should be completed within a few years.

On Capitol Hill, the key instrument aimed at getting the full-blown version moving forward is the Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA. The bill traditionally includes a long list of massive projects nationwide for everything from transportation and drainage to coastal restoration and hurricane protection.

The last time a WRDA bill was passed by Congress was in 2007, when Louisiana received more than $3.6 billion.

Playing an important role is U.S. Sen. David Vitter of Metairie, ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Vitter said he is working on the Morganza project language that will be included in the bill.

And while WRDA is a funding bill, only projects with an approved chief's report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and White House clearance can qualify for authorization.

Morganza has been under study for nearly two decades, and the corps has yet to produce a chief's report despite spending more than $72 million studying the project -- half of the money paid by the state and local sources, Vitter said.

Morganza was authorized in a previous WRDA bill in 2000, contingent upon a chief's report, but the corps delivered its report late and missed an important deadline.
Vitter is pushing language in the 2013 WRDA bill that will include a "practical, common-sense solution to authorize projects that have received a favorable chief's report," as well as concurrence from the White House.

The senator also plans to continue putting pressure on the corps to "accelerate completion of the Morganza chief's report and will seek contingent authorization if it appears that the corps will miss their yet-again promised deadlines," according to information released by Vitter's Washington office.

In the Louisiana Legislature, local lawmakers are hoping to build on past successes in the state construction bill, which includes money for projects statewide.

"We'll be asking for more money this year," said House Natural Resources Chairman Gordon Dove, R-Houma, dean of the Houma-Thibodaux area's delegation.

With the regular session convening April 8, plans are still coming together, but Dove said the administration is already working to safeguard previous lines of funding as well.

The state construction process is overloaded with projects and short on bonding capacity, or borrowing capability.

Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration, which has so far pledged more than $200 million in construction money to date, has vowed to protect Morganza's funding lines despite the challenges.


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