It was all smiles and back-slapping this afternoon as the city, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Trinity River Corridor Project partners celebrated the "fantastic news," according to Mayor Dwaine Caraway: The levees are expected to be repaired by the end of the year, and the cost range of the remediation dropped $50 million.
The original cost estimate to install cutoff walls was between $100 and $150 million. Now it's $50 to $100 million and will be paid by reallocating 2006 bond funds related to water and floodway improvements.
Caraway cited the "devastating news" from two years ago -- when the Corps deemed the levees "unacceptable" and gave the city a list of 198 items to fix -- but said the city "didn't give up" and "stayed the course as a unit." He said the city will submit its final 408 permits (required to green-light construction on the levees) next month and anticipates their approval by the Corps in July.
"This means we can continue in the direction we're headed," he said. "We should have our levees repaired and improved to meet our 100-year standard by December."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has set a deadline of the end of the year for the city to complete repairs before it remaps the area's flood zones.
TRCP Committee chair Dave Neumann said 193 of the 198 items have been addressed, stressing the city chose not to back down or fight back when the Corps first decertified the levees. He also thanked U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson for their efforts.
"We anticipate recertification if we stay the course in spring 2012, which is a stone's throw away," he said.
Col. R.J. Muraski with the Corps said the city has met all of its milestones since October 2010 and pointed out that the city's consultant (HNTB) is responsible for the levee certification. The Corps's role is to make sure the plan doesn't adversely impact the levee system's performance or function, he said, adding that its approval of the plan isn't a done deal.
"Approval for the proposed levee remediation plan cannot be guaranteed -- let me emphasize that; it cannot be guaranteed -- until the reviews are complete," he said. "However, we're very encouraged by the preliminary data and information that we've received to date from the city and are optimistic that the design will be sufficient to allow for an approval in July."
After the presser, we had some questions for Muraski but were referred to TRCP project manager Kevin Craig, who we were told had the expertise to give us accurate answers. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.
We asked: How many cutoff walls will be necessary?
"You should ask the city that because they're finalizing the design," Craig told Unfair Park. "The last I've seen is between two and three miles."
And how thick?
"I don't know that kind of detail. It's basically the size of a backhoe." (No idea what that means.)
Can you briefly describe the process of installing the walls?
"You probably need to talk to HNTB about those kinds of things."
HNTB vice president Jerry Holder told us there will be either two or three cutoff walls (also known as slurry walls), with one on the east levee and one on the west levee. The total combined length of the walls is approximately three and a half miles, most of which is planned for the east levee, and they will be three feet thick. He described the process as "a mixing technique."
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"You take the soil out of the hole, mix it with bentonite, create a slurry with water and put it back in," he said. "That produces a waterproof area, so that the water that was trying to move through a sand layer before, for instance, is cut off."
We also tracked down City Manager Mary Suhm for an update on the second Santiago Calatrava-designed bridge -- the Margaret McDermott Bridge. She expects to bids to open for the project in mid-2012; however, there's still a significant funding gap. Suhm stressed no city money has been dedicated to the project and none is expected to be.
So where's the money coming from?
"I'm working on it, OK?" she said. "I don't have an answer."