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Corps Sees Its Resources Siphoned Off: Wetlands restoration officials sent to Iraq
April 24, 2004

Release from:
Mark Schleifstein
Times-Picayune (Louisiana)

Less money is available to the Army Corps of Engineers to build levees and water projects in the Mississippi River valley this year and next year, the next president of the Mississippi River Commission said Friday.

But that didn't stop Louisiana government, business and environmental leaders from demanding more action from the Bush administration on protection from hurricanes and restoration of coastal wetlands.

Brig. Gen. Don Riley, commander of the Vicksburg, Miss., office that oversees corps operations throughout the Mississippi Valley, said this marks the third year his budget has dropped.

Corps officials involved in restoring Louisiana's wetlands also have been sent to assist those fighting in and rebuilding Iraq, including oversight of a similar wetlands restoration project there, he said.

Ed Theriot, a Vicksburg-based engineer who had directed the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Study, was sent to Iraq four months ago to oversee the restoration of the "Garden of Eden" wetlands at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that were destroyed by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. President Bush's 2005 budget allocates $100 million for that effort.

In Louisiana, $8 million is allocated in the Bush budget for completing the coastal wetlands study that Theriot was heading. However, administration officials hope that this summer Congress will authorize the first Louisiana projects as part of a 10-year restoration effort.

State and federal officials have said that authorization could result in between $1 billion and $2 billion being spent on wetlands and barrier island restoration projects. However, Army Assistant Secretary for Public Works John Woodley said Friday that the administration has not yet committed to a dollar figure for the congressional request.

The 125-year-old river commission oversees most federal levee, navigation and other water projects in the Mississippi Valley and is expected to have an advisory role in the state's wetlands restoration plans. During the "high-water inspection" public meeting Friday, the fourth held aboard the corps dredge Mississippi at various locations along the river this week, state and local officials urged the commission to support the restoration plans.

However, officials representing St. Bernard Parish and the executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation repeated their opposition to the restoration plan if it does not include a commitment to close the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a shortcut from the Gulf of Mexico to the Industrial Canal in New Orleans that is blamed for destroying thousands of acres of wetlands.

Several shipping industry officials told the commission that they agree the Gulf Outlet is causing environmental damage, but they said adopting a proposal to reduce the depth of the Gulf Outlet's channel to 15 feet must wait until a project is completed to replace and enlarge the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal lock that allows ships to pass from the Mississippi River to the Industrial Canal.

Financial reductions have delayed completion of that project indefinitely. The most recent estimate of its completion was 2017.

Martin Cancienne, regional director for U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Chackbay, said it's time for corps officials to make a decision on closing the channel.

"It's an issue that doesn't need to be studied anymore," Cancienne said. "It needs to be dealt with."

An official with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality was joined by several environmentalists in urging the commission to support a congressionally authorized study aimed at re-creating wetlands and riverside forests along the Mississippi from Cairo, Ill., to the Gulf of Mexico.

The states along the river already have chipped in $500,000 to begin the study, but federal money has been lacking, said Dugan Sabins, an official with the environmental agency. Restoring riverside land to wetlands and forests will both help wildlife and provide areas that act as filters for fertilizers and other nutrients that help create the low-oxygen "dead zone" in the Gulf along Louisiana's coast each spring and summer.