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Living in the Shadow of Levees

Citizens debate new case for controlling rivers. Bayou Country

EVIDENCE of man's conquest of nature abounds in southern Louisiana. Sitting in a sidewalk cafe in the French Quarter, visitors can hear the calliope from a restored steamboat - overhead. The Mississippi River flows along elevated levees past rooftops in many neighborhoods, since more than half of this bowl-shaped city is at least six feet below sea level.

"New Orleans itself lives in defiance of nature," says Oliver Houck, an environmental law professor at Tulane University.

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The city spent $250 million in the last decade for flood protection. Bulldozers moving dirt to reinforce high ground are a familiar sight on the earthen levees ringing the city.

The first levees were built by French settlers in 1717 to protect the city from flooding. When constant dredging failed to secure access to the Mississippi, engineers in 1875 built jetties to confine the flow, increasing the velocity of the river over mud flats. Levees extended gradually along the length of the river. The big dam era ended with the construction of the Old River Control Structure, authorized by Congress in 1954 to prevent capture of the Mississippi at the Atchafalaya River.

The severity of the flood of 1973, which shook the foundations of the Old River Control Structure, raised new doubts as to whether the system could weather a "100-year flood." Such concerns have not, however, retarded new development along unleveed flood plains around New Orleans.

In the upscale community of Mandeville, on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, 430 new houses were built last year. That represents more new construction than in all metropolitan New Orleans, says one developer, who described the growth as "white flight."

As more affluent residents move to new suburbs to the north and east, pressure mounts for new flood control projects. Between 1960 and 1980, the city of Slidell, east of New Orleans, experienced a population growth rate of 320 percent. Some residents, hard hit by floods in 1979, '80, and '83, lobbied for levees on the Pearl River. Close to 1,500 homes were inundated, and damages totaled $5.5 million.

The case for levees

"Property values decreased dramatically after the '83 flood," says Fred Pontesso, chairman of the flood committee of the Military Road Alliance, an association of homeowners.

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The Slidell Levee proposal was a first test of new legislation governing water projects, say Army Corps officials in Vicksburg. Under the terms of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, 25 percent of the cost of new water projects must be covered by local beneficiaries.

Such a move ensures a "local financial and political commitment," says G. Edward Dickey, the acting principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army Corps for Civil Works, in congressional testimony on March 20.

As a vote is required to authorize additional taxes, the system also gives residents access to design criteria before construction.

"In what we understand was unprecedented, the corps went back to design the actual levee itself - what it would look like, where it would go. Since that time, they have met frequently with Military Road Alliance to come up with the most appropriate protection that could be done," says Mr. Pontesso.

The first plan would have constructed levees straight down the West Pearl. But in response to local pressure, the corps revised the design to move around residences and make use of high ground. The design shifted from use of box culverts to navigable floodgates, which will allow free flow of water, corps officials say.

This plan avoids mistakes in previous corps water projects, levee advocates insist.

"It won't look anything like the Mississippi levees," says Mike Benson, secretary of the levee district. "But if there were no levees, there would be no New Orleans. Maybe we shouldn't be living here. But if it weren't for intervention, man wouldn't be living here. If we have to intervene, let's be sure we don't do worse damage than the flood."

Save the swamp

Not all residents are convinced that intervention is warranted.

"We have had too much loss of wetlands already, and we're one of the few areas left," says Carol Veigne, who lives in Slidell's Honey Island Swamp. She says she has attended monthly levee board meeting since 1986 "to keep up on what they're doing," and has organized a "Save the Swamp" committee.

Wetland ecologist Paul Wagthrough the swamp since 1982. "What is distinctive about this swamp is that it is not levied or cut up with canals," he says. The swamp has virgin stands of cypress and tupelo gum as well as black bear, bobcat, cougar, egrets, herons, eagles, and nutria.

"Only one-fifth of the original Everglades remains. Our swamp is much more intact as a system. You can't put an economic value on seeing things as they were years ago," he adds.

"The corps all through their history have a history of ignoring the environment," says Robert Henson, a local lawyer contesting the Levee board's authority in the courts. "They can't guarantee you anything. You can't be sure what is going to happen in the future if you change things."

Backing for the project tends to split along Interstate 10, which runs from east to west though the center of the affected area. The interstate acts as a natural dam across wetlands, corps officials say. Flood waters were at least 10 feet higher north of the interstate, where support for the levee project is most evident.

But even staunch opponents of the project applaud the new federal procedures.

"Years ago [this levee] would have been built and there was nothing we could do about it," says local activist Gerard Peigne.

A vote on the levee project is scheduled for July 13.

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