The fate of a long-awaited project that could protect Baton Rouge-area homes from future floods remains unclear, but more leaders are voicing support for "creative" solutions for securing funding that has been stalled for decades.
The planned 12-mile Comite River Diversion Canal has long been cited as a way to mitigate flood damage in the capital region. The Army Corps of Engineers project has drawn increased attention since historic floods swept the area in August, though the Corps has long cited lack of money in the project's delay.
The project, once the money is secured, is expected to take about three to five years.
The state Legislature included $87 million in this year's construction spending bill -- as it did last year -- for the state's cost of the project. But there's no guarantee that the federal government will finally fund the $125 million that it is supposed to cover.
Erin Monroe Wesley, special counsel to Gov. John Bel Edwards, said Edwards has had several discussions on the issue and is looking for ways to "be creative" though has faced some pushback from FEMA on ideas floated so far. He's also continuing to lobby Washington, D.C., for federal spending.
"We're thinking through how we can proceed with this project," Wesley said.
Members of the Restore Louisiana panel, which has been tasked with overseeing the state's recovery from last year's historic floods, bemoaned the continued delays during a recent meeting.
"I don't even know if there is a pace, given the lack of federal funding," Chris Knotts, deputy assistant secretary with the state Department of Transportation and Development, said when asked for an update.
Adam Knapp, the president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and a task force member, said he thinks that the state should consider its options and suggested that the task force take up the issue to further the discussion.
"I think it's important to continue to push this conversation forward," Knapp said. "I think we have an obligation as a task force."
It's been nearly 17 years since voters in parts of East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingsto…
But state Rep. Ted James, a member of the task force and Democrat whose Baton Rouge district was hard hit by the August floods, said that Congress needs to do more.
"The state is not going to be able to come up with this large chunk of the money," he said. "The members of congress have to step up."
He said that some members of the state's congressional delegation have been focused on issues related to health care and immigration, for which they have made the national cable television rounds.
"We need them to focus on (the Comite project) like they focus on other things," he said.
State Sen. Bodi White, a Central Republican whose district flooded in August, said that the state, support from residents all over, pushed for support for projects to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 but he doesn't feel the same sense of urgency over the river flooding issues.
"I think there's a unique opportunity right now to start showing the need for the river basins and the flood plains for the state of Louisiana," he said. "If you look now at the floods ... It's a huge problem for our state.
"The whole state has to work together," White said.
White said that he thinks that there are options available to the state if leaders look outside the box. For example, he said he had asked that some mitigation dollars that the state received for Hurricane Gustav could have been redirected. He also questioned whether the state could shift existing federal money around to free up unrestricted dollars and backfill them with other sources.
"I think there's a way. There's dollars in the state of Louisiana," White said. "Where there's a will, there's a way."
White said that 1956 was the last time that any major maintenance work was done on the Baton Rouge area's smaller rivers. He said that there should be a large-scale push to clear them and dredge them.
"If we don't we're going to continue to flood. I'm convinced of that," White said.
He said he worries that the state and federal governments are in a game of chicken -- no one wants to be the first to fund the project because they each hope the other will just pick up the tab.