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The Coming Waters 

Jeremy Alford on how a cash-poor state is planning to deal with potential record floodwaters on the Mississippi River

The tension in the room was palpable and no one — from the flacks to the hacks — wanted to stay on the agenda. From freshwater diversions to stresses on coastal habitats, a legislative hearing held last week on the ongoing recovery from last year’s oil spill couldn’t help but veer into matters related to Louisiana’s expected flooding problems that are moving downriver.

“There’s more water on the upper Mississippi River right now than any time in history, period, in any time in history,” said Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “This overwhelms the volume of water that was in the river in 1927, 1937, 1997, 2008. An extraordinary flow is coming down the river.”

That water levels are expected to be above crest for seven to 10 days doesn’t inspire much confidence. Graves said there are “vulnerabilities everywhere from the levees in Baton Rouge to the levees in south Louisiana.” 

State Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, put out the call for the Department of Insurance to begin working with low-lying residents and those who might experience backwater flooding. It’s a lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina and the many of other storms that have plagued the coast. 

If there’s going to be a challenge in the process, it’ll likely involve insurance coverage. In particular, Harrison urged the Louisiana Department of Insurance to become proactive now in places like Morgan City. 

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“This is not something that may happen, it WILL happen,” said Harrison. 

Lawmakers also lamented the possibility of opening up the Morganza Spillway, which has remained closed since 1973. It was only opened in that year because of complications at the Old River Control Structure. An executive staffer close to this year’s preparations said state officials have been “shocked” in some cases to see how “antiquated” some of the flood protection systems are along the river. 

It appears the Bonnet Carre Spillway also could be opened this year. If both the Morganza and Bonnet Carre are opened, coastal Louisiana from eastern St. Barnard Parish to the Atchafalaya Basin and beyond will experience record or near-record levels of backwater flooding. 

If that decision is made, many may view it as choice to relive pressure on Baton Rouge and New Orleans protections at the cost of Acadiana. Actually, some locals already feel that way.

“If there’s ever a choice between Morgan City and New Orleans, we know who the choice is going to be,” Morgan City Councilman Larry Bergeron told The Advertiser last week.

The impact of freshwater on coastal marshes could also be devastating for oystermen, who are still trying to recover from last year’s oil spill. State Rep. Reed Henderson, D-Chalmette, said the oystermen in his district are only 10 percent whole from their losses so far. “Now I have the Bonnet Carre about to open up and put freshwater into St. Bernard and freshwater into Lake Borgne and kill what I have left,” Henderson said.

The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission was expected to hold an emergency meeting late last week to determine whether some of the oyster beds could be relocated. Commissioners were also expected to open the oyster season early in some areas to allow an early harvest.

Henderson added that commercial fishermen in his area are bringing him accounts of slimy oysters and crabs with short life spans and others with small pinholes in their shells. Wildlife officials say both the oyster slime and lethargic crabs — meaning they’re live when harvested, but dying before market — are naturally occurring phenomena related to bacteria and other factors.

“The United Houma Nation Tribe, they were experiencing crabs not having a good shelf life when they get back to the dock,” said Drue Banta, counsel for the Governor's Office of Coastal Activities attorney.” They said they weren’t able to sell them because they were dying in a very short window of time.”

As for the reported pinholes, officials had no immediate explanation. That’s more bad news for crabbers. Casey LeBlanc, owner of Cajun Crab Connection on Bayou Des Allemands, said his company has gone from working 10 boats a day to about three. Complications from flooding won’t help.

“Buyers had signs out, ‘Louisiana Blue Crabs Served Here,’ so they took that down,” LeBlanc said. “They went from customers requesting them to telling them they don’t want them no more. They scared they, you know, might have dispersant in them or whatever.”

While last week’s hearing did veer into the river stages, it addressed spill-specific issues as well. For example, on the other side of the Gulf coin, oilmen face changes. Enhanced state oversight of blowout preventers has become a major initiative, especially since it was considered a major factor in the demise of the Deepwater Horizon rig. At one time, Louisiana officials allowed inspections to be confirmed verbally. 

“We basically have developed a specialized form we use for inspecting oil and gas wells during the drilling phase,” said Bob Harper, Undersecretary, Department of Natural Resources. “They focus on blowout prevention issues that the inspectors are expected to check very closely and document that these are in compliance.” 

Then there are the issues of money to cover all of Louisiana’s damages from the spill. Graves said BP has so far ponied up $14 billion as the responsible party, and the federal government has expended about $900 million from its oil spill trust. 

The Natural Resources Damage Assessment process on the federal level will yield money for local projects, but it could take up to 10 years for the brick and mortar process to be completed. 

More immediately, BP is expected to pay as much as $22 billion in fines under the federal Clean Water Act. Louisiana’s congressional delegation is working to steer about 80 percent of the cash to Gulf Coast states for ecosystem restoration.

BP recently put up a $1 billion "down payment" toward the restoration of natural resources injured as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Banta said. That process will begin with each state receiving an equal allotment of $100 million, with an opportunity to tap into an additional $300 million allocated to Gulf states-sponsored projects based on impacts from the catastrophe.

According to Peggy Hatch, secretary for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, BP likewise faces fines on the state level that could equal more than $300 million. “But they haven’t been levied yet,” Hatch told the committee.

Aside from what the rivers do to south Louisiana, it’s safe to say that major flooding could put last year’s oil spill in a different perspective. Bob Graham, a former U.S. senator from Florida and a member of President Barack Obama’s Oil Spill Commission, warned as much last month during a visit to New Orleans. Over the past several months, more than one event has bumped the spill from the front page — conflicts overseas, a national recession, pop culture curiosities. 

“All those things and others have tended to draw the publics’ attention away from what happened on April 20,” Graham said.

Nonetheless, oil spill recovery efforts continue. Businesses are still looking for ways to survive. People are dealing with economic losses and health concerns. And all of these challenges will remain come June and July, long after the big, muddy creek has risen and subsided.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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