Water bill benefits Louisiana
Congressional panel compromise offers state billions
By GERARD SHIELDS
Advocate Washington bureau Published: Jul 28, 2007 - Page: 1A
WASHINGTON — A U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate conference committee reached agreement Friday on a massive federal water resources bill that would bring billions of dollars to Louisiana.
The Water Resources Development Act, the first major federal water resources legislation in seven years, would authorize close to $900 million for the Morganza-to-the-Gulf storm protection system.
The legislation will also result in the closing of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a little-used navigational channel blamed for storm surge that flooded St. Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The measure would also authorize flood and hurricane protection for south Louisiana while increasing the amount allowed for East Baton Rouge Parish projects.
“It’s an enormous bill and the largest I know in state history,” said U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, who served on the conference committee. “I think it turned out as favorably as we could expect.”
Though the bill authorizes funding for projects, the state will still have to have federal money approved through the appropriations process.
The conference committee worked into the night Thursday and Friday morning to reach the agreement. A sticking point to the negotiations was a proposal in which Louisiana would help Mississippi nourish its troubled oyster beds.
In April, the two states reached an agreement that would result in fresh water being diverted 27 miles from the Mississippi River at Violet in St. Bernard Parish into Mississippi Sound.
The project is needed to help push back salt water that has crept into the Biloxi Sound in Mississippi and damaged oyster beds about 35 miles east of New Orleans.
The Violet proposal was negotiated after U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., threatened to block Louisiana funding for coastal restoration if the state did not help out.
Under the new agreement, Louisiana will guarantee that it will proceed with the project. If the state does not follow through, then Lott’s first proposal to carry freshwater 61 miles through Lake Pontchartrain would take effect. Louisiana has opposed that proposal because it would require the state to pay 20 percent of the $99 million cost and threaten the lake.
Under the new deal, Baker said, both states will benefit, since the Mississippi water diversion will help Louisiana in its coastal restoration efforts.
“The problem we are trying to fix in Mississippi helps us too,” Baker said.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., also sat on the conference committee and hailed the WRDA bill agreement.
“This conference report, when signed into law, will pave the way for major improvements in hurricane and flood protection for Louisiana,” Vitter said in a statement.
Louisiana is expected to get about $3 billion from the $21 billion bill. Morganza-to-the-Gulf is the chief state project and would result in the building of 72 miles of flood protection for 120,000 residents in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.
The bill also recommends authorization of $1.2 billion for the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration. The MRGO authorization, secured by Vitter, would also include about $105 million to restore damaged wetlands.
The bill would expand a 1998 authorization for riverfront work in West Baton Rouge Parish to now include East Baton Rouge and West Feliciana parishes. The legislation also would recommend a new, higher level of funding — $178 million — for flood control in East Baton Rouge Parish.
The House and Senate will try to get the legislation approved before they go on their summer recess next week, Baker said. Though President Bush has threatened to veto the legislation because of its cost, Baker called it a reasonable agreement.
“There will be objection from budget hawks,” Baker said. “This is an enormous bill.”