Aerial of the Comite Diversion Canal. Looking west. Mississippi River at top.

Advocate file photo by BILL FEIG

Republican Congressman Garret Graves recently told an LSU auditorium full of researchers examining the August floods that the long-stalled Comite River Diversion Canal must be the priority as the region looks at several complementary flood-control measures to protect the Baton Rouge area.

His pitch for the partially built diversion has become a common refrain among local officials — some, like Graves, in the midst of an election season — who are trying to offer answers on the historic flood and seeking to head off less popular and costly home elevations to mitigate future flood risk.

“This is a make-or-break-it deal for many of these homeowners or business owners. They are not going to come back to their homes in their community because the cost of elevating their homes is cost prohibitive,” he told the researchers.

But perhaps standing in the way is a number — 1.4 — that has helped keep the project half-built. That number, called a cost-benefit ratio, is key to getting money for the project in the federal budget and, unfortunately for those who want the Comite Diversion built, is far lower than needed to bump it up the national priority list.

It doesn't look like that will change any time soon, as the current re-evaluation at this point doesn't show any improvement.

The diversion has long been considered crucial to reducing part of Baton Rouge's flood risk, with residents living in the Amite River Basin even paying to support the project. Certain East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension residents have been paying property taxes for the project since 2001. Still, despite these collections, the proposed 12-mile canal through wetlands and pasture between Baker and Zachary is barely started, surpassing the decade it took to build the 48-mile Panama Canal through malaria-infested rain forests in the Isthmus of Panama a century ago.

In the wonky world of federal budgeting, the $245 million diversion that was designed in a reaction to the great flood of 1983 hasn’t rated as offering the best bang for U.S. taxpayers' dollars through the years.

The project has routinely garnered middling cost-benefit ratings from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, enough to be considered feasible by agency standards and get authorized by Congress but not enough, by federal policy, to make it into the president’s proposed budgets, corps reports show.

The project is to be paid for under a cost-share agreement among the state, local property taxes collected by the Amite River Basin Commission and the Corps of Engineers, which has the bulk of the responsibility. With a $62 billion backlog of Corps of Engineers projects that the Government Accountability Office says had surpassed 1,000 by mid-2014, the Comite Diversion hasn’t made into the Corps’ proposed civil works budget since fiscal year 2006, Corps budget documents say, although Congress ended up putting some funding to the project in 2007.

Land acquisition, wetlands mitigation and other work has occurred, but just one small piece of the diversion has been built — that structure paid for primarily by funding from special congressional earmarks. Once constructed, the diversion would draw off high water from the Comite River and lower floodwater downstream in the Amite River, instead sending it west to the Mississippi River. The Comite is a tributary of the Amite.

Backers of the project estimated the unfinished canal could have reduced by one-quarter the houses damaged by the August floods near the Comite and Amite rivers. 

Significance of ratio?

Several local and congressional officials downplayed the significance of this cost-benefit rating to the years of delays in the project, which has been chronically short of funding. They instead pointed to past fights over the state-federal cost share and, more recently, how the Amite River Basin Commission could mitigate wetlands destruction expected from digging the diversion channel.

State Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, R-Central, who has pushed for the diversion and been critical of the Corps of Engineers, brushed off the impact. He sees the number as being a piece with other foot-dragging by the Corps, which he charged has resisted the diversion for years.

“No, it doesn’t have an effect, but it has an effect on a bureaucracy that doesn’t want to do it,” White said, when asked if he thought the cost-benefit number had an effect on funding. “It’s just another reason. They need to quit giving excuses and do the project.”

But David Moreau, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor and former director of its Water Resources Research institute, said cost-benefit analyses can become important in determining which projects move forward.

"There're a lot of projects out there competing for a limited amount of dollars," he noted.

Moreau has been part of the National Academy of Sciences committees that have reviewed Corps of Engineers methods and projects.

Dating to the late 1800s and already formally in use by the Corps of Engineers by 1902, cost-benefit analysis has become the basic standard by which the Corps weighs whether the nation’s resources should be invested in one part of the country versus somewhere elsewhere.

In the simplest terms, the method attempts to weigh all the upfront costs, plus maintenance and operations, and all the long-term benefits against one another, typically over a 50-year period.

With flood control projects like the Comite Diversion, experts said, this analysis involves figuring what kind of flood risk is present and what kind of structural damage would be avoided if the projects were built.

Factors such as population growth, the relative value of homes compared with those in other parts of the nation and proactive flood protection measures can all affect what the total benefits are ultimately determined to be and how they measure up nationally.

All this calculation boils down to a single figure. The Comite Diversion’s ratio has hovered around a 1.4, which means the benefits exceed the cost by 40 percent.

Corps projects only need a cost-benefit ratio of 1, which means the benefits equal the costs, to be considered feasible by the agency. The 1.4 ratio helped get the project authorized by Congress in 1992 — and reauthorized two more times, last in 1999 — but, under Office of Management and Budget policy, only projects with a 2.5 or better rating make into the president’s proposed budget for funding.

Bobby Duplantier, the Corps’ senior project manager on the Comite Diversion, said the diversion's cost-benefit analysis is under re-evaluation in light of the flooding and continued population growth in the basin. The figure was last evaluated in 2011.

But he said early results suggest the ratio remains about the same, even accounting for the growth, coming in at 1.37.

He said several factors are at play. Land and construction costs for the diversion continue to rise. The project's cost has risen from about $64.1 million before inflation when it was first authorized to about $245 million now, though the project has also been modified as well.

On the benefit side, Duplantier said, local floodplain construction regulations have forced new development to build above the projected height of a 100-year flood, having the effect of undercutting the estimated benefit of the Comite Diversion would have in avoiding floods.

He said Corps officials had expected a major, upward change in the Comite's benefit-cost ratio once they started seeing a construction boom after Hurricane Katrina.

"But it turns out when you look into it, they are building the homes above the floodplain, which is a wise thing to do, but it takes out of the (benefit) impact on the project," Duplantier said.

While some observers like Moreau were uncertain and unwilling to speculate whether political pressure could overcome a moderate cost-benefit ratio, others suggested legislative muscle certainly can make it happen, undercutting the significance of the ratio. While the president's budget is the starting point for laying out what projects get funded, Congress tinkers with that and shifts around priorities.

“There’s no doubt that members of Congress on the important committees, if they want a new dam or want some other project in their district, they will get it,” said Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the conservative-leaning Cato Institute and a vocal critic of Corps who'd like to see its civil works functions privatized.

He said that kind of political pressure is part of the inefficiency of the agency’s civil works program. Corps projects must go through a two-step process: first being authorized and then being funded through the appropriations process.

In the end, the Corps has a long list of authorized projects but doesn’t have enough discretionary money to pay for them all, he said.

This is where cost-benefit analyses can come into play, allowing the Corps and the administration to prioritize what to fund, unless Congress has other ideas, which it often does.

"Cost-benefit analysis is a good idea in theory. It should be done on more federal spending. In practice, you know, it falls short," Edwards said.

Past days of earmarks

At one point, the diversion was the beneficiary of congressional largesse.

The project had a champion for many years in former U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, who was able to use the old congressional earmark process to include annual chunks of money that helped get the $30 million Lilly Bayou Control Structure built.

The 1,000-foot long, 150-foot high concrete structure is expected to work like a weir, one day controlling water inside the unbuilt canal. Only floodwater would flow over the structure and into Lilly Bayou and the Mississippi two miles to the west.

In the name of reform, however, Congress put an end to earmarks in 2011. The practice directed funding to specific projects, often outside agency review, and was decried by budget hawks and good government advocates as the corn feed of federal pork.

Paul Sawyer, a former aide to Baker who now works for Graves, said in the years of earmarks, there wasn't much worry about trying to change the Corps’ cost-benefit analysis.

He said the Comite was the only project in the Amite River Basin that was authorized and in line for funding after years of study by the Corps after the 1983 flood. The diversion was seen as the best project, regardless of what the ratio said.

But when the project ran into delays over wetlands mitigation and other environmental issues, Corps funding tagged for the Comite Diversion went to other Louisiana projects.

“So, it was a bill payer for other projects in Louisiana,” Sawyer said.

The Corps' analyses have come under fire for many years from the GAO, environmentalists and many others, but mostly they have been seen as having a bias toward justifying construction projects, not blocking them.

Col. Michael Clancy, the Corps district engineer and commander in New Orleans, told state and local officials in August that the agency could build the diversion in two years if it had all the funding it needed.

Statements like that and the missed opportunity many now see has local officials and members of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration sensing renewed momentum to fully fund the Comite Diversion. About $125 million is needed from the federal government and $40 million from the state and commission, corps officials have said.

“This is the first time I’ve felt we could get enough money to get it done in my political career. There’s the will, but I can’t tell you what’s going to happen,” White said.

Edwards pressed President Barack Obama for funding during his visit to Louisiana in August. The state and the commission must also provide a share of the money.

While U.S. David Vitter, R-La., inserted language in the Senate version of the 2016 Water Resources Development Act bill that calls on the Corps of Engineers to expedite the Comite Diversion, the language also does not fund the project.

Officials had said they hoped that money would come in Congress' stop-gap funding measure to continue operating the federal government through early December. While that bill, which Obama signed Sept. 29, provides $438 million for the flood recovery in Louisiana, it does not have specific funding for the Comite Diversion.

Graves and other members of the congressional delegation have said there will be other flood recovery funding measures coming.

Meanwhile, Duplantier, the Corps project engineer for the Comite Diversion, said the design and engineering is also under review to see where savings in construction cost can be found, which could improve the project's cost-benefit ratio.

One area drawing interest, he said, is a $2 to $3 million guide levee west of the Lilly Bayou structure that may no longer be necessary.

The report on that engineering review, which is underway, is expected to be finished sometime next month. A new cost-benefit analysis, based on any changes in costs or benefits, could be publicized by late November or early December, he said.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.