Friday, August 11, 2006


I just got back from the second MRGO Stakeholders meeting, arranged by the Army Corps of Engineers, supposedly to help them develop their 'closure' plan that needs to be delivered to Congress in December. This meeting featured the presentation of four different closure plans developed by non-Corps interests, to an audience of 'stakeholders' which was was teeming with shipping interests, as well as Corps reps from three different districts.

Stakeholders presentations came from:
Bring New Orleans Back, Biloxi Marsh Lands Corporation, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, and St. Bernard Parish.

Bring New Orleans Back (I thought the BNOB planning process utterly fell apart in the absence of Hizonner's support for what they were doing - what the heck are these guys doing presenting?)
At any rate, they did get to present their plan, which started by Billy Marchal laying out his bonafides, in the form of his and the plan committee's absence of financial ties to shipping and the MRGO. He immediately launched into a description of what the Corps planning process is currently up to and the 4 options they are looking at. This of course begs the question as to why the Corps wasn't presenting on their plan alternatives, but at any rate:
1 - no new structures, just raise existing levees and storm walls
2 - Structure at seabrook & Paris road
3 - MRGO Structure & rerout GIWW across lake borne
4- 2 gates 1 east of Michoud on iww, 1 on MRGO.

Option four seems to have the most support and interest at this point, at least in the eyes of the BNOB. Of course, none of the other 'stakeholders' have seen the plans, so remind me what we're doing here again?

Billy then laid out that the principles that the BNOB feels must drive their plan selection: plan must 1) protect people & property, 2) protect and enhance the environment,3) and allow commerce consistent w/ 1 & 2. After that point, it seemed like the rest of his presentation was rationalizations for point 3.

Billy made the point that the MRGO wasn't actually a 'Hurricane Highway' and that while the MRGO indeed destroyed wetlands, that's all about saltwater intrusion, and anyway, all the marsh in the area was underwater before the big storm surge came through the area anyway, so it wouldn't have been of much help to protect people or property. As to protecting the environment, BNOB supports a river diversion to increase fresh water and sediment into the area, as all the groups are supporting.

With that all taken care of, BNOB suggests we can reauthorize a narrower, shallower chanel (no inland dredging would be necessary) also armor banks, slow down boats, install configurable depth weir or sector gate at LaLoutre - to let 28 foot draft through. Cost - less than $100 million over cost of a weir of 14'x125' dimensions. BNOB figures the sector gate configuration saves $75-300 million in relocation funds. So the clear winner in the eyes of the BNOB is to keep the thing open to deep draft.

Biloxi Marsh Land Corporation -
largest land owner in Biloxi Marsh been hustling to get CWPRRA $, other resources to protect the land. Their MRGO plan really had nothing to do with closing MRGO and everything to do with restoring Biloxi Marsh Lands. Understand there are three lines of defense out there: chandleur is, biloxi marsh, land bridge. Wants to use MRGO for freshwater conveyance. Don't care about MRGO depth, they'll leave that to the experts. Well, at least they were honest and stayed within their alocated time.

Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation -
John Lopez presented on the Lake Foundation's
Lines of Defense plan, and the components that apply to the MRGO. He began by pointing out the three reaches of the MRGO:
1) Innerharbor Navigation Canal to the Intracoastal Waterway -This reach is the storm surge delivery system- At this point John vehamently disagreed w/ BNOB's assertion that MRGO played no role in flooding New Orleans, and that this 1st reach is indeed a hurricane highway.
2) Intracoastal Waterway to the LaLoutre ridge - the reach that killed the marsh
3) LaLoutre ridge to the Gulf - the reach that costs so much to repeatedly dredge.

Take a look at the link above to see the full depth of the plan. It's well thought out, and critically important to the region. John also underscored that while the LPBF initially supports a 125' x 14' dimension and weir, they will only support that if it is proven to be a safe alternative through modelling, and will effectively block storm surge.

St.Bernard Parish -
St. Bernard President Junior Rodriguez in his singular way then presented the St. Barnard plan, while basically telling the shipping interests in the audience that they killed his Parish. Junior is pushing for a total closure at LaLoutre.

Also, stirring the pot, Junior supports a Mississippi River floodgate for hurricane storm-surge. If we don't build something along those lines, the water that used to go into Lake Pontchartrain will go up the river. He pointed out that the Carrollton gauge went from +4' three days before the storm to 12'+ the day of Katrina - just imagine how high that water would have been without the pooling of Lake Borne and Lake Pontchartrain - all of a sudden, the dry sliver by the river, would be some of the most inundated area in the city.

At this point the meeting basically went into 'fight for your interest' mode, with the shipping folks raising holy hell to defend shallow-draft use of the MRGO. They're also going to do their damndest to marry the industrial canal lock expansion to MRGO closure. Need to make sure powerplants in AL & FL panhandle get their coal (turns out this is one of the largest tonnage uses of the intercoastal waterway - moving coal from Ohio to Alabama and Florida to give our fish mercury and increase green house gas emissions - great, we certainly wouldn't want to stand in the way of this important commerce).

Oh, and the Corps spelled out that the 'closure' plan they present to Congress won't actually include a closure plan so much as a range of options! Great, what were we doing at these meetings again? I'd direct the Corps back to the legislation that Congress passed forcing us to all go down this road:

Public Law 109-234 (enacted June 15, 2006) provides $3.3 million for the Corps to "develop a comprehensive plan, at full Federal expense, to deauthorize deep draft navigation on the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, Louisiana, extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway ..." The accompanying report (H.Rept. 109-494, page 113) provides, in pertinent part:
"Funds totaling $3,300,000 are provided for the Corps to develop a comprehensive plan, at full Federal expense, to deauthorize deep draft navigation on the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, Louisiana. The plan shall include recommended modifications to the existing authorized current use of the Outlet, including what navigation functions, if any, should be maintained and any measures for hurricane and storm protection. The plan shall be developed in consultation with St. Bernard Parish, the State of Louisiana, and affected Federal Agencies. An interim report summarizing the plan shall be forwarded to the appropriate House and Senate authorizing and appropriations committees within six months of enactment of this Act and final recommendations shall be integrated into the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Plan, due to Congress in December 2007."

Heaven help us if we can't get this right.

Aaron Viles is the Secretary of the Delta Chapter, as well as the Campaign Director for the Gulf Restoration Network, a regional network of environmental organizations dedicated to protecting and restoring the valuable resources of the Gulf of Mexico. The GRN and the Sierra Club work shoulder to shoulder on a variety of natural resource issues throughout the Gulf.