Enviros, State Officials Call For MRGO Wetlands Restoration

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Environmental groups and state leaders Tuesday renewed calls to fix the wetlands outside New Orleans destroyed by the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a federally built shipping channel blamed for worsening the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

         The MRGO Must Go Coalition — a collection of national and state environmental groups — issued a report calling for federal funds to fix the damage.

         The report was released at a news conference overlooking Bayou Bienvenue, a waterway studded with dead cypress trees on the back side of the Lower 9th Ward.

         "MRGO ecosystem restoration," the group said, "still waits for funding."

         The channel — known locally as the MRGO or "the Mister Go" — was dug between 1958 and 1965 — with the support of Louisiana and New Orleans officials — as a shortcut for ship traffic between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans. It was closed by Congress in 2007, two years after Katrina struck.

         Barely used by shippers even after it was dug, the MRGO has long been viewed as an engineering fiasco.

         Expert engineers argue it led to repeated flooding of the historic neighborhoods downriver from the French Quarter, including the Lower 9th Ward and places like Arabi and Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish.

         Digging it allowed salt water to intrude, killing marshes and cypress forests. Since the 1960s, these wildlife areas, known as the Golden Triangle and Biloxi Marsh, have seen the disappearance of marsh, natural ridges, cypress forest and shoreline.

         "If we fail to get coastal restoration and hurricane protection right, nothing else will really matter," said Walt Leger III, a Democratic state representative from New Orleans who also serves as speaker pro tempore in the state House.

         Restoration of the MRGO was mandated by Congress under the 2007 Water Resources and Development Act. The Army Corps has estimated it will cost $3 billion.

         Restoration has also been hung up by litigation.

         The Army Corps is asking the state pay 30 percent of the costs. But the state has balked. The case is now under review before U.S. District Judge Lance M. Africk in New Orleans.

         "This is not our responsibility," said Chip Kline, the chair of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. He serves as Gov. Bobby Jindal's executive assistant on coastal affairs.

         The Army Corps, in an emailed statement Tuesday, said it could not comment due to pending litigation.

         Kline said his agency and the state are "not sitting on our hands" when it comes to restoration.

         Using funds from the settlement over BP's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, Kline said the state plans on restoring areas hurt by the MRGO.

         "We must proceed with the same sense of urgency, the same sense of determination, the same sense of resolve as we did after the weeks and months following" Katrina, Kline said.

         Also on Tuesday, a judge in Washington granted the federal government more time to decide whether to appeal her finding that the government is responsible for hurricane damage related to the MRGO. That decision had been expected by Aug. 10. But court records show U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Susan Braden has approved a delay until Oct. 9.

         Braden ruled in May that the corps' construction, operation and failure to maintain the MRGO led to flooding during Katrina and other storms. The resulting damage amounted to "a temporary taking" of property by the government, for which property owners must be compensated, she said. How much money is at stake and who would be ultimately compensated remains unclear.

         – by AP Reporter Cain Burdeau




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