NEW ORLEANS (AP) The Army Corps of Engineers wants to spend $62.4 million on wetland restoration and shoreline protection along Lake Borgne and the soon-to-be-closed Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.
The proposal, part of a draft environmental impact statement, is seen as a first step in a larger effort to shore up the more vulnerable eastern stretches of the New Orleans area. Wetlands serve as a first line of defense for the mainland against storms. And the corps, working to fortify the region’s levee system after Hurricane Katrina, is authorized, but not yet funded, to do an ecosystem-wide plan for the area affected by the outlet.
Release of the draft, which the corps expected to be advertised in the Federal Register by the end of October, will be followed by a 45-day comment period. A final decision could come early next year, followed with work beginning perhaps by late spring.
Corps officials say their proposal, or preferred alternative, would create, nourish or protect 3,867 acres, with 49,280 linear ft. of shoreline protection that, with other projects in the area, would nearly cover the shoreline along the lake and outlet.
It’s a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done, said Carlton Dufrechou, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. Chief among that list: closing the gulf outlet.
The outlet, originally dug in the late 1950s, never caught on with ships as a shortcut between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans since they had to pass through locks to reach the main river port. Even with limited use and complaints of wetlands destruction, the channel stayed open until Hurricane Katrina.
After the 2005 storm, scientists and residents blamed it for flooding in eastern stretches of the New Orleans region. A lawsuit over that claim is pending.
Richard Entwisle, an operations manager for the corps, said the agency hopes to start closure before year’s end, work that could be completed by early summer, before the height of the next hurricane season.
The sooner, the better, Dufrechou said. “It is not the entire fix, but it is a cornerstone,” he said.
It would help stop saltwater intrusion into the Lake Borgne basin, eventually lower salt levels and helping restore habitats, he said. Without it, the work the corps is talking about for additional restoration and shoreline protection would not be as significant, he said.