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Crews work Thursday to complete the installation of the sunken barge in Bayou Chene.

The Daily Review/Bill Decker

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Gov. John Bel Edwards talks to reporters Thursday atop the barge being installed in Bayou Chene to alleviate backwater flooding.

Governor: Barge, still being installed, is already doing its job

AMELIA -- The Morganza Spillway opening, the third in the flood-control structure's history, has been put off until next week.

By then, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday, the barge placed in Bayou Chene to block backwater flooding will be in place and completed. It will already be alleviating flooding in Lower St. Martin, St. Mary, Assumption, Iberville and Terrebonne.

The barge has already made a measurable difference in water levels on the protected and unprotected side, Edwards said. The barge was placed Wednesday, and the work of driving pilings goes on.

Edwards talked to reporters atop the barge as enormous cranes roared around him.

"We know this barge will be successful in helping us redirect waters that would otherwise contribute to the backwater flooding that is taking place in five parishes right now," the governor said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers delayed the Morganza Spillway opening until June 6. They'll open one bay each day until June 9, when the spillway wil be opened until the flow hits the target 150,000 cubic feet per second.

So more water will be diverted from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya. The crest at Morgan City is still expected to be 10 feet, but the crest date has been pushed back to June 21, Edwards said.

In the past, water at 10 feet in Morgan City has been the signal to sink the Bayou Chene barge, Edwards said. The barge was deployed in 1973, 2011 and 2016.

The added water from the Morganza opening will take 10 to 12 days to arrive at Morgan City, the govenror said, by which time the barge should already be reducing backwater flooding.

Edwards said the decision to sink the barge this year came quickly.

"We made the decision to sink the barge before the Corps made the final decision to open the Morganza, because we knew they were sufficiently certain to do it.

"And with all the backwater flooding that had already taken place and the elevated water levels on highways and in communities and really just spread across the five parishes, we knew we needed to get started on this."

St. Mary Levee District Director Tim Matte said the trigger for closing the proposed permanent Bayou Chene flood-control structure will be 7 feet at Morgan City, or a foot over flood stage. Officials announced the complete funding of the $80 million project in March.

The state involvement in this year's barge operation was important, Matte said, because it prevented the financial burden from falling squarely on St. Mary for the solution to a multiparish problem.

The cost of the current barge operation will be $7 million, Edwards said, including $3.2 million paid by the Corps of Engineers for rip-rap and limestone needed to secure the craft against the high water.

The governor thanked a long list of officials, including some present at Thursday's press conference: Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Director Chip Kline, St. Mary Parish President David Hanagriff, St. Martin President Chester Cedars and Morgan City Mayor Frank "Boo" Grizzaffi. He thanked Levee District Chairman Bill Hidalgo.

Edwards also thanked the Trump administration for approving his request for federal aid.

"For the cost of this (barge) operation, will we recoup 75 cents on the dollar," Edwards said.

Another aid request is in the works, this one to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

People who harvest shrimp, oysters, crabs and finfish have reported reduced catches resulting from the freshwater released by the opening of the Bonnet Carre' Spillway. There are worries that the Morganza opening will do the same in the Atchafalaya region

Officials are collecting information about catch reductions to present to NOAA, which could then seek a congressional appropriation for compensation to fishermen.

"I feel comfortable we'll be making a request for assistance," Edwards said."We just have to capture the data first."

Reporters at the barge-top news conference were limited to questions about the barge operation and flooding. That prevented Edwards from being faced with questions about his decision earlier Thursday to sign the state's new ban on abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which could outlaw abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

Louisiana became the fourth red state to pass such restrictions this year but is the only one led by a Democratic governor.

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