If the Maurepas Diversion is moved under the West Shore Levee project no permits would be required.
The Army Corps of Engineers no longer requires a separate permit for a project state leaders hope to couple with the buildout of a new levee on the west shore of Lake Pontchartrain, officials said this week. Per federal rules, any environmental damage caused by a levee’s construction must be lessened, usually by way of a new project that benefits the surrounding environment. And state leaders have for months pushed the Corps to consider the state’s proposed Maurepas Swamp diversion as an acceptable sister project for the new levee. When first proposed as a separate project, the Maurepas diversion needed a Corps permit to determine if it violated federal environmental laws or disrupted existing Corps projects, including the Mississippi River levees. But because state leaders now hope to include Maurepas as part of the Corps-sponsored levee buildout, Maurepas no longer needs separate permits, corps spokesperson Matthew Roe said. Questions about Maurepas’ compliance with federal laws and potential conflicts with other Corps projects are covered through a revised version of the environmental impact statement originally written only about the levee.nola.com
This decision will save time, money and effort so is welcome news.
That supplemental impact statement included language saying the state had halted its request for a separate permit in 2019, without explaining that it wasn’t necessary. That resulted in the Corps withdrawing the statement temporarily on Friday. The Corps originally wouldn’t let the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority use the Maurepas proposal as mitigation for the levee because its $200 million cost was much more than the amount of mitigation needed for the levee. But it reconsidered after state officials made clear that they only planned on counting a portion of the diversion’s cost towards the local share of levee construction costs. Corps senior officials still haven’t signed off on the Maurepas proposal, however. When the environmental document was withdrawn last week, officials said a new public comment period would be announced when it is republished in a few weeks. The Corps could approve the combined diversion and levee plan by the end of the year.
The diversion does fit into the levee project and it will be desiged to build land while the levees protect.
The new $1.2 billion West Shore levee, which is under construction along the edges of Maurepas Swamp on the east bank of the Mississippi River in St. Charles, St. John and St. James parishes, is aimed at protecting those areas from hurricane storm surges, and will be elevated over the next 50 years to deal with future sea level rise. State officials believe mitigation costs are expected to be at least $120 million, which is less than the full cost of the diversion. Most of the actual design and construction cost of the diversion will be funded with money the state is receiving from BP and its drilling partners for natural resource damages in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. However, if the state were unable to use a part of the diversion as mitigation, it would have to find other sources of money to pay for Corps-required mitigation for the levee.
The original plan was not as expansive and there has been some problem from the Spanish Lake Restoration group in Baton Rouge which has a link to the governor.
The original Corps mitigation plan included paying to convert farmland in St. James Parish and open water in St. Tammany Parish into swampland. The Corps also wanted to buy credits in mitigation banks, privately-owned projects where landowners are paid to create new swamps or wetlands. The latter idea is supported by Spanish Lake Restoration, LLC, which owns a wetland mitigation bank just south of Baton Rouge. Officials with that group, pointing to the inclusion of the state’s halting of its permit process in the environmental statement, have argued that the diversion won’t be completed by the time the West Shore levee is completed, which they say runs afoul of federal law. They also say the Corps’ rules give preference to banks such as theirs. One of the investors in the Spanish Lake project is Murray Starkel, who served as deputy commander in the Corps’ New Orleans District office during the post-Katrina improvements to the New Orleans area levee system. He also was Gov. John Bel Edwards’ roommate at West Point.
The Corps says the Baton Rouge group has no standing as the diversion is not in their area.
The state coastal authority has pointed out in letters to the Corps that the Spanish Lake mitigation bank has neither been recognized by the state nor by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as being in the same water basin as the wetlands that will be damaged by levee construction. The Maurepas diversion project, however, is, they said. A U.S. Fish & Wildlife official said the same in a similar letter. “The proposed boundary change to include portions of the Spanish Lake Mitigation Bank represents an unprecedented adjustment in the overall Conservation Plan boundary,” wrote Joseph Ranson, with the federal agency’s Louisiana Ecological Services office. He added that the basin was over 50 water miles from Lake Maurepas, and that it was “extremely unlikely” that organisms would use that area for any of their habitat needs. But Starkel said in his own March letter to the Corps that there’s precedent for that agency to consider “out of basin” mitigation banks for required mitigation, pointing to previous decisions by the Corps and the state’s Department of Natural Resources to certify some wetland areas away from the coast for other mitigation projects.
So much for being the Governors roommate at West Point. This is a positive development that might speed up the project.