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|$5.5 million is chump change|
If Fifth District Levee Board President Reynold Minsky is correct, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will need some $700 million to repair the damage the high water of 2011 caused the mainline Mississippi River levee from Memphis to New Orleans.
That's a daunting figure, and what makes it more alarming is it doesn't include estimates to repair or improve the levee surrounding New Orleans or improvements or repairs to the levee north of Memphis to Iowa. Suffice it to say, all of it will be costly, and we're certain to hear the Corps will need the Congress to make a special appropriation to bring the mainline levee up to speed again. Hopefully the Congress won't tell the Corps to tread water, or make do with the money it has on hand.
While we wait to learn just how badly this year's high water damaged the mainline levee, the Fifth District Levee Board has a more pressing concern that needs to be addressed immediately by the state Legislature.
Before we go any further, let us recall that the Fifth District Levee Board is responsible for maintaining the mainline Mississippi River levee from 10 miles into Avoyelles Parish, north through Concordia Parish and onward to the Arkansas/Louisiana border in East Carroll Parish. That's 257 miles of levee that fall under the levee board's jurisdiction.
The levee board finances its operations with revenues collected from a small property tax that's levied in Avoyelles, Concordia, Tensas, Madison and East Carroll parishes. The tax generates a little more than $1 million annually.
The levee board also gets funding from the state. In good years, the Legislature will appropriate $250,000, give or take, for the levee board to use as it sees fit. In recent years, though, state funding for the levee board has been less than robust to say the least. Lawmakers peeled off $25,000 last year for the levee board and $150,000 the year before last.
A year or two ago, the levee board began acquiring right-of-ways from private land owners to make way for the Corps to raise the level of the levee in parts of Madison, Tensas and Concordia parishes. That's the way it works. The levee board is responsible for securing right-of-ways while the Corps will foot the bill for raising or making improvements to the levee.
In all, some $3.5 million has already been promised to private land owners for right-of-ways the levee board acquired, or took, for the Corps to begin raising the levee along 14 river miles in Madison, Tensas and Concordia. Another $2 million is needed for the levee board to complete right-of-way acquisitions for the Corps to complete the 14-mile project.
The problem the levee board currently faces is it doesn't have $5.5 million at it disposal to pay for right-of-ways. The board needs the Legislature to appropriate it. Thus far, state lawmakers have been less than forthcoming in turning over $5.5 million for the levee board to pay for right-of-ways it already has acquired or right-of-ways it needs to acquire for the 14-mile project.
One could rightfully question why the levee board engaged in right-of-way acquisitions when it didn't have the money to pay for them. That's a legitimate question, but we must remind ourselves how the federal government, or the Corps, works. When the feds say they have $15 million available to raise the level of the levee along 14 river miles in three parishes in the heart of the Delta, one must act and act immediately or the $15 million may be redirected to another project somewhere else. Besides, one would think the state, or state lawmakers, would be more than willing to appropriate the money that's needed to improve an asset as important as the mainline Mississippi River levee.
We don't have to agree with how the levee board went about securing right-of-ways without the cash to pay for them. We can agree, though, that the mainline Mississippi River levee needs to be raised to better protect all of northeastern Louisiana and the people who live here. If nothing else, the high water of 2011 showed us how vulnerable we are to the mightiest river in the world.
That's why it's vitally important that the Legislature appropriate the money the levee board needs so the Corps can do its job. After all, $5.5 million is chump change if we are inclined to attempt to calculate what it would cost – in dollars and lives – if the Mississippi topped or broke through the levee and flooded a third of the state.