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Corps of Engineers officials inspect $8.8-million project

JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — James McRae, right, Acting Area Engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, looks over a map of the Mississippi River's course as it passes Natchez and Vidalia with Colonel Jeff Eckstein, District Manager of the Vicksburg District on Wednesday afternoon.
JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — James McRae, right, Acting Area Engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, looks over a map of the Mississippi River’s course as it passes Natchez and Vidalia with Colonel Jeff Eckstein, District Manager of the Vicksburg District on Wednesday afternoon.

VIDALIA — An ongoing $8.8 million construction project that started in 2010 to enlarge the Vidalia levee system is nearing completion, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials are pleased to have added an additional 3 feet of protection to the levee.

Vicksburg District Commander Col. Jeffrey Eckstein, project engineer James McRae and other corps officials toured a construction site in Vidalia Wednesday afternoon, where 33 relief wells are being installed starting at the Vidalia Cemetery and running north.

The wells are 110 feet deep with stainless steel screens across the bottom. Relief wells preempt sand boils by not allowing pressure to build up under a levee.

JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Joel Miller, project manager with Riverside Construction, turns the nozzle on a mobile pump before performing a test on one of the relief wells that have been installed near the levee in Vidalia on Wednesday afternoon. The relief wells will enable water that pools behind the levee to be pumped elsewhere.
JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Joel Miller, project manager with Riverside Construction, turns the nozzle on a mobile pump before performing a test on one of the relief wells that have been installed near the levee in Vidalia on Wednesday afternoon. The relief wells will enable water that pools behind the levee to be pumped elsewhere.

Sand boils are pools of water that bubble up near levees. Sand boils are dangerous because they displace the soil under a levee, creating instability in the levee foundation.

The wells, which are 75 percent complete, are the last leg of the project. Expansion of the levee embankments is complete, and turfing the embankments is the final step.

Eckstein said the Vidalia levee project has been high atop the Corps’ priority list for a number of years, but the 2011 flood, which reached levels of 61.9 feet, on the Natchez River gauge caused a temporary shift of attention.

“There were several low spots that had already been identified, and were under contract when the flood hit and this was one of them,” Eckstein said. “We had to go do some flood fighting, but we were able to come back and address these key areas.”

McRae said the design plans for the construction are based on the 1973 Mississippi River flood, when water levels reached 56.7 feet.

During the 2011 flood, McRae said water levels reached approximately 6 feet below the levees currently under construction.

The levee expansion project, McRae said, added approximately 3 feet to the top of the levee.

“Height wise, we’re covered,” McRae said. “If it was the same flood, we’d have about 9 feet of protection.”

Once the project is complete, maintenance of the levee will be handed off to the Louisiana Fifth District Levee Board.

Eckstein said he expects construction of the relief wells to be completed by August.