Under a bill approved by a Senate committee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would retain responsibility for two shipping gates in the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier when local agencies in June take charge of the $14 billion storm-protection system built since Hurricane Katrina.

“When the gates were initially given to us they were defined as flood protection which, of course, they are not. They are holes in the flood protection system placed there for interstate commerce.” — John Barry

 The measure, if passed into law, would require the cash-strapped Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East to pay 35 percent of the cost of operating the gates, which are part of the intracoastal waterway. That’s a potential annual savings of as much as $2 million for the agency, which is supported by local property taxes.

To take effect, as part of  the Water Resources Development Act, the committee-approved bill will have to pass both houses of Congress.

The East Bank flood protection authority has maintained that the cost and responsibility for operating and maintaining shipping gates in the corps-built Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System should be borne by the federal government.

“I’d call this a mixed result, because we really think 100 percent of the cost should belong to the corps,” said John Barry, vice president of the authority.

“When the gates were initially given to us they were defined as flood protection which, of course, they are not. They are holes in the flood protection system placed there for interstate commerce, which means they should be federal responsibility, by law.

“The corps operates all the other navigation gates on the GIWW [intracoastal waterway] and the Mississippi River, and they should be operating these because, by law, they are responsible for them.”

Officials with the flood authority traveled to Washington in March to lobby for changes in the water resources act that would trim the estimated $14 million annual bill it will assume in June for operation and maintenance of the hurricane defense system on the east side of the river. The annual tab for the intracoastal waterway gates — a sector gate and a by-pass gate called the “barge gate” — along with a gate at Seabrook on the industrial canal at Lake Pontchartrain is estimated between $4 million and $4.5 million.

The flood protection authority also sought  unsuccessfully  to give the corps responsibility for the Seabrook gate.

Finding an adequate and stable funding stream has been a challenge for the flood protection authority because state law prohibits it from using property taxes from one parish for work in another. The hurricane defense system overlaps St. Bernard, Orleans and Jefferson parishes which have grossly different property values and population sizes.

In addition to saving money, the flood protection authority wants to be relieved of any liability for operating the maritime gates, Barry said. While the system was finished in time for last year’s hurricane season, the corps has still been unable to get the barge gate through an open-to-close cycle successfully, creating what flood authority officials consider an unacceptable risk to the metro area during storm season.

“If [the hand-off to the corps] doesn’t pass and we have control of that gate, I can tell you we plan on closing it at the beginning of hurricane season and leaving it closed ’til the end,” Barry said.

Barry said he believes a season-long closure would be an inconvenience to maritime traffic but would not shut down the intracoastal waterway.

Bob Marshall

From 2013 to 2017, Bob Marshall covered environmental issues for The Lens, with a special focus on coastal restoration and wetlands. While at The Times-Picayune, his work chronicling the people, stories...