Sep 27, 2010 7:25 AM by Posted by Sharlee Barriere
HOUMA, La. (AP) - Terrebonne Parish has begun an experimental environmental project that officials hope will save millions of dollars to build hurricane protection levees.
The Terrebonne Levee District is the first in the state to use its own staff to restore wetlands, work required by law to make up for damage levee construction causes to local marshes.
Typically, these projects are contracted to private companies, but that can be expensive. Levee District officials hope to save money by using some of its own staff, equipment and oversight.
But environmentalists are worried about attempts to do wetland projects on the cheap.
"These projects are expensive because they should be
effective," said Matt Rota, water resources director for the Gulf Restoration Network. "You're trying to recreate a natural process. It's difficult to do."
Reggie Dupre, director of the Terrebonne Levee District, said federal law requires the district to build 370 acres of wetlands. It will offset damage from building a section of the Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane-protection levee that is nearly complete near Cocodrie.
District workers will fill in large open ponds of water that have formed from erosion between Bayou Terrebonne and Bayou Little Caillou. The Levee District is renting a pump to dredge and will be doing the work in-house on a trial basis.
Mitigation refers to environmental projects agencies must build to make up for the impacts their construction has on sensitive habitats. If their levees impact wetlands, they must build new wetlands to make up for it.
Dupre said traditional methods, such as employing an engineering firm to design the project and to haul dredging machines into the wetlands to build land, could have cost the district as much as $30 million. The Army Corps of Engineers has pressured the Levee District to begin mitigation projects soon after a levee project is
completed, Dupre said.
But working on a tight budget to build Morganza, Dupre said, "that's something we could not have afforded."
"That's when the concept arose: Could we do this on our own?" Dupre said.
First, the Levee District had to get permission from the state Legislature. State Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, wrote and pushed through an amendment that allows Levee District to perform this kind of work.
Doing the work in-house "allows us to have more money to spend on our levees and floodgates," Dove said.
The state's Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority then gave the Levee District permission to move ahead with a trial wetland-building project.
The district has 90 days to build the first 14 acres of the 370-acre project and report to the state agency on its success.
"We're going to have some growing pains," said T. Baker Smith project manager Mitch Marmande at the Levee District meeting Tuesday, when the board discussed the project. He said that the cheaper variety of pump the district wants has only been used to build wetlands a few times, adding to the experimental nature of the project. The district may change approaches and is looking at
renting more tried-and-true equipment if the experimental pump fails.
Rota said he couldn't comment specifically on the project because he hadn't seen the Levee District plans, but he urged caution and oversight as the Levee District moves ahead.
"Mitigation isn't simple," he said. "It isn't just a matter of planting plants and letting them go. There needs to be a whole lot of monitoring" to make sure it's effective. "If it isn't, we need to realize it quick."