Members of the U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee are challenging the limits of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' mission for building natural hazard defenses.

During a June 16 hearing on hurricane and flood protection work in Southeast Louisiana the narrow issue was the Corps' recommendation for an $800 million project to build permanent pumps and storm surge barriers at mouths of three New Orleans outfall canals. The committee chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the Louisiana delegation and witnesses backed a $3.5-billion "Option 2," instead, which would improve city storm drainage as well as perimeter defenses.

Although the Corps’ own studies suggest the costlier plan is “more technically advantageous because it has fewer moving parts,” says Nancy Allen, a spokesperson for the Hurricane Protection Office in New Orleans, that plan, or a related Option 2A which would add interior pumps and discharges to the Mississippi River, would require extensive modification to interior drainage systems and need years of study. The Corps says those studies, estimated to cost approximately $15 million, are not funded. It also says that improving stormwater drainage exceeds its mission.

The Corps has estimated the cost for all three options and provided the estimates to Congress, which appropriated funds to carry out Option 1. It says if Congress were to authorize and fund construction of Option 2 or 2a, it would carry out that work as well.

Senators David Vitter, R-La. and Mary Landrieu, D-La. argued that the Corps’s interpretation of its Congressional mandate is erroneous. “You’re just fixing the same system that broke,” Landrieu says. “That is what has us angry and befuddled. We don’t think this is about just looking at Louisiana, but looking at new engineering models for this country. I am waiting for the Corps of Engineers to admit the model they have is not sufficient.”

Challenging Fundamentals

“We want a comprehensive system that keeps people from flooding to the greatest degree possible, regardless of whether that is from drainage or storm surge,” says Landrieu, while Boxer, whose own state is looking at a massive flood-risk-reduction construction program that relies heavily on the Corps, took a similar tone to elbow for more mission room as she vowed to support the more expensive�and expansive�New Orleans plan. “The Corps has said some projects preferred by local citizens are too costly and haven’t been examined enough,” Boxer says. “Frankly, I am not into wasting hundreds of millions of dollars. I would rather spend more, and know it meets the need.”

The Corps chose the $800-million fix based on reduction in risk from storm surge at the perimeter, says Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division and president designee of the Mississippi River Commission, when asked by Boxer if the Corps selected Option 1 because it was cheapest.

Most of the hearing was dedicated to the disagreement over the solution for permanent pump stations at the mouths of New Orleans’ outfall canals, where they discharge into Lake Pontchartrain. Following Hurricane Katrina, Congress authorized the Corps to construct temporary surge gates and pump structures where the canals meet the lake until permanent structures could be designed and built. The temporary gates were installed to block storm surge from running up the canals from the lake and pumps were installed with them to evacuate interior drainage buildup from the canals when the gates are closed. High water in the canals during Hurricane Katrina led to levee and floodwall failures that caused much of the flooding of the city.

The temporary structures have a life expectancy of five to seven years. Last fall the Corps presented several options for permanent replacements. In August, the Corps will issue its first request for proposals for design of Option 1, the estimated, $800-million permanent replacement of the pumps and gates. Under that plan permanent gates and pumps at the mouths of the canals will continue to operate as the temporary ones do now, in tandem with New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board’s interior drainage pumps, which are located at the heads of the canals deep in the city. The Corps plans to award a design-build contract by June 2010, with a scheduled completion in 2013.

But Vitter says his constituents prefer Option 2, which involves removing the existing, city-operated interior drainage pump stations, deepening the outfall canals and building new pump stations at the mouths of the canals to handle all needed discharges. It could also include a “pump to the river” addition to the project referred to as “Option 2A,” which would establish a new series of additional pumps to reroute some interior drainage directly to the Mississippi River.

The Corps estimates Option 2 would cost $3.2 billion, even before adding in a “pump to the river” addition, but says Option 2 would not provide any better perimeter protection than the much less costly Option 1. The Corps also says it isn’t authorized to study options 2 and 2A, which would require about $15 million in additional appropriations and two to three years to complete. Landrieu and Vitter, however, say authorization to study the alternatives already exists. Walsh says the Corps will proceed with the study if Congress funds it.

Vitter expressed concern that “we are in the process of perhaps moving forward with the wrong fix for the outfall canals�.for the biggest thing that went wrong that caused catastrophic flooding in New Orleans.” After Hurricane Betsy [in 1965, when the current levee system was authorized], the country made a mistake by trying to fix the problem using a “cheaper alternative,” Vitter says. “I don’t want to repeat that grave mistake and save pennies on the front end and pay billions on the back end.”

“Complete studies have not yet been conducted, and the wrong solution is being implemented by the Corps,” says Thomas Jackson, commissioner and past president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East and past national president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “Don’t allow the Corps to be shortsighted,” he beseeched the committee.

In addition to the back and forth about the outfall canals at the hearing, Boxer also criticized the Corps for delay in providing the committee with a comprehensive plan for coastal restoration and she suggested the formation of a task force to guide coastal restoration. The Corps’ Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration report is now in review by the public and the National Academy of Science. It will be submitted to the Secretary of the Army for Civil Works in August, Walsh says.

One witness, Robert Twilley, vice chancellor of research and economic development and a professor of oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University, said the problems being faced in Louisiana are indicative of a “national inability to deal with infrastructure,” both natural and built.

“It will not be possible to restore coastal Louisiana without major changes to the way federal agencies deal with these issues,” says Twilley. “Not only do we have to find and fund solutions, we have to coordinate solutions.”

Twilley proposed a policy of comprehensive watershed management for the entire Louisiana delta that would coordinate issues, much like the Mississippi River and Tributaries system that was formed after the flood of 1927.

Another witness, Jeff Jacobs, a scholar with the National Research Council, added the observation that the nation must also explore options such as the voluntary relocation of people in particularly vulnerable areas, flood proofing construction, improved risk communications and evacuation plans.