Local, state and federal officials from Louisiana have stood their ground against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' attempts to build cheap and fast flood protection for the New Orleans area, but the Corps seems to be much more efficient at lobbying Congress than it is at building a flood protection system that works as promised. At stake is the construction of proposed permanent pump stations at the end of the 17th Street, Orleans Avenue and London Avenue outfall canals. The Corps favors the cheapest option, which provides less protection than two other proposals favored by everyone else hereabouts. The Corps has dug in its heels, saying the project will not move forward until the state agrees to a partnership agreement for the cheapest option. Time is of the essence, because the temporary pumps and floodgates installed on the canals post-Katrina have a limited service life.
So far, the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) has rightly refused to agree to a fast, cheap "solution." The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (the consolidated East Bank levee board), the New Orleans City Council, the Jefferson Parish Council, the Sewerage and Water Board and the Louisiana Congressional delegation support CPRA's position. In late July, U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter co-sponsored an amendment to pending energy and water appropriations legislation that would direct the Corps to conduct an 18-month peer-reviewed study with cost estimates for various options. While the study is underway, the Corps would start building the permanent pump stations, keeping them "option neutral" until Congress decides which option to build.
Unfortunately, last Wednesday a U.S. House and Senate conference committee rejected the Landrieu/Vitter amendment. Landrieu blamed the Corps, saying, "The Corps' stubbornness ultimately subverted the House-Senate negotiations and today the bureaucracy won the battle." She has vowed to take the issue to President Barack Obama and to amend other bills if possible.
The Corps says it has only been authorized by Congress to build "Option 1," which relies on the same kind of engineering that failed so miserably in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Under Option 1, the permanent pumps would work only during storm events, when adjacent floodgates would be closed. This requires the new pumps to work in tandem with much older Sewerage and Water Board (S&WB) pumps at the other ends of the canals — a plan that is fraught with potential failures. During "normal" rainfalls, the floodgates would remain open, and the older S&WB pumps would drain the city through the poorly designed, weak floodwalls on the outfall canals. This is hardly an option.
Option 2 would make the permanent outfall stations "all-purpose" with year-round pumping. The outfall canals would be deepened and paved so water could gravity-flow to the lakefront, making some of the older pump stations no longer necessary. Option 2a includes the improvements of Option 2 and adds a "pump to the river" plan favored by many in Jefferson Parish.
The Corps says Option 1 would cost approximately $804 million; Option 2, $3.4 billion; and Option 2a, $3.5 billion. To many stakeholders, the Option 2 price tag seems suspiciously inflated. "Nobody believed that," says Tim Doody, president of the consolidated East Bank levee board. Moreover, the higher present-day costs of Options 2 and 2a pale in comparison to the future damage another fast and cheap Corps "solution" will cause.
After last week's vote, New Orleans is back to square one and in need of an objective analysis of all three options. While "the clock is ticking" on the temporary pumps (as Dan Bradley, the Corps' Branch Chief for Permanent Pumps, noted in a recent press release), the Corps is sending mixed signals. On one hand, Corps bureaucrats in Washington lobby against local attempts to secure the best-engineered option — rather than merely the cheapest. On the other hand, Bradley and others are telling the consolidated levee board that when construction begins, the Corps will make accommodations — a heavier foundation and a lower sill — so the project could be converted to Option 2 or 2A. Which signal should we believe?
Going forward, the state should never agree to cheap and fast. We've seen what that costs. Meanwhile, the Corps should demonstrate its good faith by starting "option-neutral" construction — and cease lobbying against attempts to build the best system possible.