Maybe this will be the bullet that finally kills the zombie.
Recently, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor released an advisory report analyzing the prospects of a reservoir project in Washington Parish. The document painted a poor prognosis. In over a decade, largely due to a string of permit rejections by the federal government that leaves it empty-handed in obtaining necessary authorizations, the Washington Parish Reservoir Commission has next to nothing to show for $3 million spent on trying to dig a big hole and fill it with water.
Further, auditors concluded it would take at least 10 times the money already spent to finish it. The chances of that seem remote, since several landowners where the lake would go refuse to sell. The commission has no power of eminent domain, courtesy of a 2016 law authored by the area’s state senator, Beth Mizell. That statute also mandated the appointment by Gov. John Bel Edwards of entirely new commission membership and specifies that the board publicize its meetings on the parish website.
Finally, Jeff Sadow opined something that was both based upon facts and progressive in nature.
But that wasn’t Mizell’s idea. Originally, her bill would have terminated the body, and it left the Senate that way. However, in House committee hearings, Edwards’ then-chief of staff Ben Nevers, whom Mizell succeeded as senator and who had co-authored the legislation creating the reservoir district, submitted a card in opposition to the bill prior to testimony, signaling an unspoken threat that Edwards would veto it in that form. Subsequently, another Edwards ally, state Rep. Malinda White of Bogalusa, offered to the committee the language now in law.
The notion behind inundating the area around Oak Grove lingers as an ugly reminder of Louisiana government’s long tradition of boondoggles. The obvious model for the project is the Poverty Point Reservoir in Richland Parish. A quarter-century ago, then-state Rep. Francis Thompson, who remains in the Legislature as a senator, championed construction of that lake, steering over $40 million in state funds to do so.
Thompson advanced the argument that it would spur economic development. It did — for Thompson, who brokered real estate deals around it; for the project’s lead firm, Denmon Engineering whose management were Thompson allies; and for his brother Michael Thompson, who would run the agency overseeing the reservoir and eventually get convicted of malfeasance in that post. As for everybody else, the 2,700 acres of water hardly produced a ripple.
Noting the bankruptcy of the development idea, years ago those advocating drowning Oak Grove touted a new justification — shoring up the water supply. But as the U.S. Geological Survey noted, the area has reliable, abundant hydrological resources.
Yet the undead reservoir district lumbers on, having acquired a life of its own as it searches for a purpose, with Nevers’ one-time business partner, former Bogalusa Mayor Charles Mizell (no relation to Beth Mizell), and another legislative author of the project, former state Sen. Jerry Thomas, appointed to the commission. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the commission once employed Michael Thompson as a consultant and continues to retain Denmon Engineering for the project.
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Commissioners talk of going ahead with a plan stripped down from the original and muse that they could cajole the Department of Transportation and Development into doing its dirty expropriation work for them. Even this outside chance of frittering away more taxpayer dollars should worry those who support sensible spending.
Nevers has retired, and since the Great Flood of 2016, Edwards needs to worry more about restoring areas that were under water than covering more land under it. Lawmakers and Edwards should put the district and its commission out of its misery.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.