GONZALES — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has signed off a key permit for an important but also controversial extension of an Ascension Parish flood protection levee along the southwest side of the Amite River Basin.
Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa announced Monday that the Corps agreed to issue the wetlands permit for a 4.5 mile-extension of the Laurel Ridge levee in the St. Amant and Lake Martin areas, allowing further progress on the eastern Ascension levee extension discussed since the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"You know we got devastated,” Matassa said of the 2016 flood, “and if we would have had the levee up, it would have helped somewhat.”
Once built, the new levee will plug one major hole in Ascension’s flood protection system and protect areas that suffer from chronic flooding when the Amite backs up from heavy rain or from hurricane surge waters out of Lake Maurepas. The areas were hard hit in the August 2016 flood.
Kimberly Koehl, an engineer with GSA Consulting Engineers, told the East Ascension drainage district board Monday night that the Corps permit’s issuance will allow final design and land acquisition to start.
The East Ascension board, which is made up of 10 of 11 Parish Council members, has been overseeing the project along with the Pontchartrain Levee District. The levee district has agreed to share in the estimated $24 million cost for the levee.
Koehl said in a later interview that the levee extension will be built 3 feet higher than the estimated height of a 100-year-flood, or flood with a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year.
But she also cautioned that while the levee would likely provide some protection in a flood equivalent to the August 2016 flood, the parish would need to finish a plan to raise the height of the existing Laurel Ridge levee farther south to ensure more-complete protection.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the August flood in Ascension was between a 250-year- and 100-year-flood, depending on the location. The August 2016 flood overtopped the existing Laurel Ridge levee by more than a foot.
The project also hasn't been without controversy as the structure will destroy some prime forested wetlands and somewhat isolate several hundred acres more, including parts of the scenic White Cypress Swamp north of Gold Place Road. Also, residents along the proposed levee route have objected to parts of it, including those in the Lake Martin area who will remain outside the protection levee.
The Corps permit, which is the product of at least eight years of steady work by the levee district and the East Ascension drainage district, also comes as officials at the state level, from other parishes, from the Amite River Basin Commission and academics are trying to develop a basin-wide model to determine the best flood control projects for the region.
The permit, which was signed Wednesday, came about a week after the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources issued a coastal use permit Jan. 23. The state Department of Environmental Quality issued water quality certification, which comes hand-in-hand with a Corps wetlands permit, almost a year ago.
The levee concept was part of the original package of projects proposed when voters in East Ascension approved the permanent half-cent sales tax for drainage in 1984. The Corps and DEQ permits jointly went out for public comment on the levee in May 2015.
Councilmen Dempsey Lambert, Todd Lambert and Randy Clouatre, drainage board members who have lobbied for and shepherded the levee for years, hailed the levee extension permits Monday. Dempsey Lambert and Todd Lambert were on the drainage board in the mid-2000s during a tough political fight over future of parish drainage projects like the levee extension.
Dempsey Lambert, the current drainage board chairman, noted that the levee, in combination with a Comite River Diversion Canal and future improvement of the existing Laurel Ridge Levee, would mean enhanced flood protection for residents.
“I’m living a dream now right, brother. This is some of the stuff that, 30 plus years, has been needing to be completed,” Dempsey Lambert said.
The levee district says the levee extension will protect an estimated 500 people and 350 structures in Ascension, but the levee will also cut off about 5,000 acres of existing flood storage capacity from the rest of the Amite River Basin when backwater is at its highest. The levee will have control gates that allow water to flow in and out of the area behind the levee naturally until the Amite reaches flood stage, or 6 feet above mean sea level.
Permit documents filed with DEQ show that consulting engineers have analyzed the effect of the levee when the gates are closed and conservatively estimated the levee would raise water levels outside the levee by three-quarters of an inch in a 100-year-flood.
James Bolner Jr., 55, a lawyer who lives in the Lake Martin area, is among the residents who have fought the levee’s alignment. Bolner isn’t convinced by the parish’s analysis and suggested that by being caught outside the levee, the structure will push more water on him and his neighbors.
Bolner, who narrowly avoided flooding in August 2016 in a home elevated 8 feet off the ground, said the parish never did a full-blown environmental analysis and has not kept residents in his community apprised of its status.
“It going to change the way things are for the people on the unprotected side, but you know that. I appreciate it’s not a big concern for them,” Bolner said.