Living in the Shadow of Levees. Citizens Debate New Case for Controlling Rivers. Bayou Country Series: POINTS OF THE COMPASS. Part 27 of a Series. First of Three Articles Appearing Today

Article excerpt

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.

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.

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. …