BERWICK — When flood waters began rising in the Atchafalaya River earlier this year, St. Mary Parish officials led a project to sink a barge across Bayou Chene, forming a makeshift dam to stave off backwater flooding from an area that spans six parishes.
By all accounts, it seems to have worked, and St. Mary Parish officials on Friday urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help pay for a permanent floodgate on Bayou Chene to block future flooding.
“It’s been tested. The system has held back flood waters,” St. Mary Parish Levee District President Bill Hidalgo said.
Hidalgo and others made the pitch for the floodgate during a public hearing held in Berwick by the Mississippi River Commission.
The commission is a mix of corps officers and civilians whose recommendations shape flood control policy for the Mississippi River system, which includes the Atchafalaya River.
The goal of the proposed floodgate at Bayou Chene is to hold back rising water from the Atchafalaya River, which can push up into the bayou and then into other waterways.
The backwater flooding linked to Bayou Chene threatens portions of St. Mary, lower St. Martin Parish, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche and Iberville parishes, St. Mary Parish President Paul Naquin said.
The barge was sunk in May and then shored up with piles of rock and thick steel sheets.
A sunken barge was also used at Bayou Chene during the last major flood in 1973 to prevent backwater flooding.
“We knew it would work,” Naquin said.
The Bayou Chene barge, which was a temporary fix, has been removed to allow for normal drainage and boat traffic, but some of the rock and steel sheeting has been left in place along the banks so another barge could be sunk if needed, Naquin said.
But he said the hope is for a more permanent structure that could be easily opened and closed when water begins rising.
The estimate for the project is $30 million, which includes money for about 5 miles of nearby levees, Naquin said.
He said the state and the local levee district would likely help pay for the floodgate, but officials are looking to the corps for the bulk of the funding.
Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte asked the Mississippi River Commission to be more mindful of the magnitude of backwater flooding issues along the southern stretch of the Atchafalaya River.
He said the backwater areas, even though they are not along Atchafalaya River, still feel the effects of rising water.
“The connection is there, and it needs to be made,” Matte said.
The corps has made no promise of funding for the Bayou Chene floodgate or any other projects in the area.
The corps is now facing an estimated $1 billion in repairs to levees and flood-control structures stemming from the flooding earlier this year on the Mississippi and Atchafalaya figures, said Corps Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, who serves as president of the Mississippi River Commission.
The $1 billion figure is for the entire Mississippi River system, and the corps did not have specific figures for how much of that work is needed in Louisiana.
Walsh said at the public hearing on Friday that it could take 10 years or longer to pay for the repairs.