comite river diversion canal

U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Col. Michael N. Clancy, commander and district engineer for the New Orleans district, discusses Comite River Diversion Canal project on Monday, Nov. 6, 2017.

Advocate photo by Mark Ballard

New frustrations surfaced Monday over the latest bid to breathe life into building the decades-old Comite River Diversion Canal.

A top official of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – a key player in the effort – conceded there is little hope of finishing the plan through traditional funding methods.

"We are 25 years in the project now," said Sen. Bodi White, R-Central and a member of Comite River Diversion Canal Project Task Force.

"Do you see that getting any better if we use traditional Corps funding?" White asked.

Col. Michael N. Clancy, commander and district for the New Orleans district, replied that he did not.

Clancy said the federal budget poses challenges and the project "does not compete well" in the all-important cost-benefit ratio that plays a key role in what work gets the dollars.

In addition, Clancy said officials of the Corps, while sympathetic to the effort, are not working on using other federal dollars – pushed by White and others – to make the long-delayed project happen.

White, in comments to Clancy, said he has worked on the project since 2003.

"I hope you understand my frustration," White said. "It is not personal."

White also said it is telling that, when Gov. John Bel Edwards met in September with the commanding officer of the Corps, there was no pledge of dollars.

Clancy replied that the official cited by White, Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, promised to fight for money, but it is ultimately a Congressional decision.

He said the Corps got $6.7 billion in the last fiscal year with a backlog of about $100 billion in projects nationwide.

"That is simply not enough to do anything of noteworthy value," Clancy said of the latest allocation.

Around $200 million is needed, and the aim is to help protect homes and businesses from flooding.

Rep. Valerie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, chairwoman of the task force, said when she met with Corps officials in June in Washington D.C. she was told "rural" projects do not normally land Corps dollars.

Hodges noted that 22 percent of Louisiana's population could benefit from the canal.

"It is not a road or a bridge that will facilitate traffic," she said. "It will save lives. How high on the priority list is saving lives?"

The canal would be a 12-mile structure and siphon water from the Comite River, sending it to the Mississippi River.

The Comite is a tributary of the Amite River.

Task force members repeatedly noted that some residents of East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes have been paying property taxes to build the canal since 2001.

Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, said he hopes the 2016 flood improves the cost/benefit ratio of the plan. "This is a major, major issue for the people in this area," he said.

The home of Erdey, like that of Hodges, was flooded last year.

Hodges said her neighbors "go crazy" when it rains for two or three days amid new flood fears.

White and others have been discussing chances of using other federal dollars to help make the project happen.

One possible source would be post-flood hazard mitigation dollars from FEMA pledged by East  Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes.

Community Development Block Grant dollars from HUD are also being touted.

White said that $35 million or so, and perhaps $50 million in state aid, could pave the way for the state to go it alone if the canal was cancelled as a Corps project.

"I think this is the one time in history where we have a chance where our local governments come together to get this done," he said.

The canal would run from the Comite River to the Mississippi River, between Baker and Zachary.

It includes construction of five bridges across the east-west canal, dredging and compensating for the environmental impact of the work.

Erin Monroe Wesley, special counsel for Edwards, said the governor fully backs the project and key agreements with the Corps should be reached by the end of the year.

She said she could not say when the work would be finished.

"That is what our people want to hear," Erdey said of a completion date. "That is of utmost importance to them."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.