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Congressman Graves reflects on West Shore Levee progress

RESERVE — The groundbreaking for the construction of the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Levee Project, initially scheduled for June 21 at the Reserve Relief Boat Launch, was recently postponed due to tropical weather.

U.S. Representative Garret Graves (R-Louisiana) assures residents in St. John the Baptist Parish and surrounding areas that the project is progressing, and storm surge protection is on the way.

“We’re confident that all the money needed to finish this project is in the bank. We’re continuing to press the Corps of Engineers to move this thing as quickly as possible, and while it’s certainly moving slower than we’d like, keep in mind that this thing was stalled for four decades, and we’re now absolutely on a path to get it finished and get people the protection they deserve,” Graves said.

As clay is stockpiled from the Bonnet Carre Spillway, locals are seeing an increased amount of truck traffic along Airline Highway, Main Street, Highway 628 and Highway 3217. Clay materials are being hauled to a levee access road that has been constructed along Airline Highway near the River Forest subdivision. In addition, the Reserve Relief Boat Launch was recently approved as an access road for the project, and construction traffic will surround this area in the future.

According to Graves, a lot of the work planned for this year involves stockpiling clay and planning for drainage structures, flood gates and utility relocations along the levee alignment. Design and real estate will continue to be a focus for the remainder of 2021.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has worked closely with nonfederal sponsors, which include The Pontchartrain Levee District and the State of Louisiana through the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The non-federal sponsors have been responsible for acquiring real estate for the project, according to Graves.

“They don’t just go out and buy land everywhere. As the Corps of Engineers finalizes designs, they give that to the Pontchartrain Levee District and to the state, and they go out and buy the land,” Graves said, noting that the acquisition must be planned down to the inch.

“If you buy land outside of the footprint of where the levee is, the federal government doesn’t count that as an eligible cost,” he added. “It has to be a pretty well-orchestrated process in order to get all of this right.”

At this point in the process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is primarily responsible for completing the design work and securing the borrow material. The Corps estimates that up to 9 million cubic yards of clay will be needed for levee construction.

According to Graves, even the clay acquisition follows specific guidelines because it must have the right consistency to be suitable for levee construction. The Corps of Engineers must consider settling and how the levee alignment impacts surrounding grass and wetlands.

In a recent stakeholder update, the Corps of Engineers stated that it is investigating whether “pre-loading” the levee alignment with sand and extending the schedule would reduce borrow requirements.

The COVID-19 pandemic did not cause any major schedule impacts in 2020 because work associated with land acquisition, design and borrow material did not bring people in close proximity to one another.

While Graves would like to see the project move faster, he said there have not been any major delays thus far. This project has been a priority for him since Hurricane Isaac inundated St. John Parish with flood waters up to 8 feet deep in 2012. Graves was working for the State of Louisiana at the time.

“I remember being around, talking with former Parish President Natalie Robottom and going through one of the Belle Terre neighborhoods that was underwater. It was awful,” Graves said. “You start looking around to see what the solutions are, and you say, wait a minute – there’s a project that’s been around since the early 70s that’s supposed to protect us, and this thing hasn’t moved?”

People he spoke to had little faith the project would ever get done, and that motivated him to start breaking through the red tape. He took office in 2015, and by 2016, he’d helped achieve authorization for levee construction. In July 2018, it was announced that the $760 million project would be fully federally funded.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases monthly stakeholder updates at www.mvn.usace.army.mil/About/Projects/BBA-2018/West-Shore-Lake-Pontchartrain/. These presentations are also shared on the St. John Parish Facebook page, and Parish President Jaclyn Hotard discusses updates via Facebook Live on the fourth Wednesday of each month.

Residents can also receive updates by calling the Construction Hotline at 877-427-0345.