As the 110th Congress took over the Beltway reigns last Thursday, two of Louisiana's highest-ranking Democrats announced that legislative approval of the entire Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection project would be their "first priority." A bold-faced press release was circulated even before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, was banging her newly acquired gavel. It was an ambitious promise, one that has gone largely ignored by federal lawmakers for more than six years.
The project is massive, to say the least. Morganza is a 72-mile winding path that will connect levees, locks and other systems stretching from St. Mary Parish, around Terrebonne and beyond Lafourche. It's expected to protect about 120,000 people and 1,700 square miles of land against storm surges such as those produced by Katrina and Rita. The price tag: $886.7 million for Category 3 hurricane protection.
The project has a robust constituency in south Louisiana, supported by newspaper editorials and endless town hall meetings, but Congress has not been as kind. Morganza originally was authorized in 2000 as part of the Water Resources Development Act, also known as WRDA. The status is essential, because Congress rarely doles out real dollars to projects that don't have authorization. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, however, failed to deliver a feasibility report on time and the authorization expired.
In every year since, Congress has been unable to move another WRDA bill to passage, for a variety of reasons, and Morganza has thus stalled. Another last-ditch effort for authorization was launched during the final hours of last month's session. While it passed the House, the proposal ultimately was thwarted by Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, who called Morganza "pork-barrel" spending. Reportedly, the hold-up also was due to a misunderstanding about dredging depths.
Now Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Charlie Melancon are back with a stand-alone measure for the ongoing session that would authorize the entire Morganza project, which equates to $576.4 million for the feds' 65 percent portion. The state's 35 percent share would be about $310.3 million. Local authorities, in concert with the state, already have spent millions on design and planning. In Terrebonne Parish, voters have even assessed themselves a quarter-cent sales tax to help pay the tab. As such, there's no good reason for Morganza to get stuck in political muck.
"Anyone who considers levees to be 'pork' clearly doesn't understand the devastation of seeing your home flooded as so many were after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita," says Landrieu, a New Orleans native.
The challenge this time around, though, is deeply rooted in semantics. By most accounts, there is no real opposition to Morganza's mission, but that doesn't guarantee passage as a stand-alone measure outside of the WRDA bill. Mark Davis, director of the new Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane Law School, says he has seen very few independent authorizations such as this make it through the entire congressional process. There's also a mind-set among lawmakers that encourages them to push their own stand-alones when they see another succeed -- and therefore the practice is discouraged.
Nonetheless, the project's time in the WRDA bill has yet to yield anything of real value, and people are getting impatient. It's time for a change. "While there are people that question some of the design aspects and other elements, it's the WRDA bill that has held this process up," Davis says. "Morganza has been a victim of the WRDA paralysis. It's holding this thing hostage."
Melancon, who lives and works in Napoleonville, says the state can build on the momentum it gained late last year from securing additional oil and gas royalties. Discussions presently are being held with House leaders on the matter, he adds, but it's too early to tell where any opposition might arise.
While Melancon says he doesn't want to put the "cart before the horse," he and Landrieu need to start searching for money in the 2007-08 federal budget -- after all, an authorization without an appropriation is useless. "But that's a little further down the road," he says. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there."
As for why Morganza should be the state's first brick-and-mortar "priority" during this session, at least when it comes to coastal restoration and hurricane protection, Melancon argues that the region has waited long enough and that the project needs to gain some ground -- both literally and figuratively. Granted, it only covers a section of Louisiana's central coastline, but that still represents progress.
"This has been the only project in the state sitting there for six years," Melancon says. "People have been waiting to get this thing moving. They got screwed. That's the justification."
From a political perspective, the legislation foreshadows a policy partnership between Melancon and Landrieu that may flourish in the coming years, especially considering they both play the role of insiders in the new Democratic Congress. And while the legislation is only a single step in the battle to protect Louisiana's coast, it could generate some serious PR capital for the duo.
"It could easily be another political triumph for them, especially for folks in south Louisiana," Davis says. "They can go back and say they're on the top of their game. But at the end of the day, merely authorizing Morganza does not mean Category 5 protection or serious coastal restoration. It's just one piece."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com
- U.S. Sen. Photographer
- Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Charlie Melancon say hurricane protection for Louisiana will be their first priority in the 110th Congress.