When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told St. James and Ascension officials in late 2013 that their parishes were the odd men out on a proposed federal hurricane levee, the bad news came with a consolation and a promise.
St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel announced at the time that he had a commitment from the Corps to raise homes and businesses and to build separate ring levees to protect some communities in his parish.
Ascension Parish and Pontchartrain Levee District officials promised they, too, would find a way to protect the southern part of Ascension Parish.
“We’ll move on and try to solve the problem in another way,” then East Ascension Drainage Chairman and parish Councilman Randy Clouatre told The Advocate at the time.
More than a year and a half after the Corps’ announcement, officials in both parishes have concluded it’s time for Ascension and St. James to work together on their own joint levee and multi-pump station project that could cost $80 million to $100 million or more and exceed what the Corps had anticipated for St. James Parish.
“We reached out to each other, and we decided that why don’t we work on this together,” Roussel said recently.
After some preliminary meetings earlier this year, the two parishes formed a joint task force of drainage and elected officials to develop a plan, lay out the steps to accomplish it and make recommendations to their respective councils.
The group, which had an organizational meeting May 11 in Convent, plans to hold its first formal meeting in about a month in Gonzales.
Funding is uncertain, though there are some ideas.
As conceived so far, the levee system would join with Ascension’s Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station in McElroy Swamp and run behind Sorrento and a small existing pump station off Conway Bayou. The levee would then track La. 70 past the Colonial Landfill and the Panama Canal and ultimately run parallel north of La. 3125 in St. James along an old spoil bank on the north side of the Parish Canal.
East Ascension Drainage Director Bill Roux suggested at the organizational meeting that the parishes let the Pontchartrain Levee District take the lead on early engineering, and at some point, the two parishes should ask the Levee District to run and maintain the combined levee system under a joint plan.
One key with this setup, Ascension Parish officials said, is the levees would leave a large portion of the Maurepas Swamp on the levee’s unprotected side.
The Corps said it decided to leave St. James and Ascension parishes out of its hurricane levee plan, known as the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain plan, because including the two parishes would not provide enough benefit for the cost.
The Corps ultimately selected a West Shore levee alignment proposal that had the highest-cost benefit.
Ascension Parish Councilman Kent Schexnaydre, whose vocal advocacy for new levees and pumps to protect Sorrento, Pelican Point and Darrow helped start the conversation about a joint effort between the two parishes, made his case for working together earlier this month.
“Because anything we do, we need to make sure that it conforms with what (St. James Parish) does so that we can meet in the same place with any levees or pumping stations or anything like that,” Schexnaydre told the East Ascension drainage board May 4. “It would not be a good thing to do things separately” from what St. James Parish is doing.
Seeing Ascension and St. James join forces on drainage represents a sea change from the long ago past. The two parishes have been in a conflict for years over Ascension’s Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station’s impact on flooding in St. James during some of the worst storms, but pressure and opportunity have combined to create this moment.
Severe flooding from Hurricane Isaac in 2012 spurred new interest in the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain levee system, a dormant concept first authorized by Congress in 1971.
Many feared that New Orleans’ beefed-up, $14 billion post-Katrina levee system had pushed storm surge from Isaac onto LaPlace and other river parishes reaching northwest to the outskirts of greater Baton Rouge.
The proposed $881 million West Shore levee would protect the back sides of St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes but stop near the St. James Parish line.
To St. James Parish President Roussel and others, the Corps’ shorter levee plan will one day funnel even more storm surge from lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas into Ascension and St. James parishes.
Armed with extensive modeling, the Corps has attempted to rebut those notions, but the belief persists among leaders in St. James and Ascension and many of their voting constituents, officials say.
Roussel and St. James Councilman Jason Amato, who both sit on the joint task force, flatly disputed the Corps’ contentions.
“I’m laughing. I’m sorry,” Roussel said when asked about the Corps’ claims that the New Orleans levee system didn’t contribute to flooding in the River Parishes after Isaac.
“I’ve got to say, very candidly speaking, I don’t believe that.”
Even with the West Shore setback, Ascension still might have left St. James to go it alone. East Ascension Drainage Director Roux acknowledged in the parishes’ first task force meeting May 11 that what St. James may be planning would not affect Ascension Parish so much, but what Ascension is planning would affect St. James Parish.
But seven months after the Corps’ West Shore levee announcement, several days of severe rain fell in southern East Ascension and Donaldsonville.
The rain storms of late May 2014, which have since been classified as a 400-year event, left angry residents calling for action.
The rains highlighted to many residents and some Ascension Parish Council members that it was time for the southern edge of East Ascension Parish, which is drained by gravity through Bayou Conway and the Panama Canal, to get the kind of mechanical pumping and drainage systems that now serve Gonzales and St. Amant.
Ascension officials have made early progress on some internal improvements, including completing minor drainage fixes near Pelican Point.
A future ring levee around the Astroland community in Darrow and plans for a seventh pump at the Marvin Braud station, in part, to handle some Conway and Panama runoff are also in the offing, Roux has said.
The seventh pump at Marvin Braud is in engineering. David Boyd, an engineer with Burk-Kleinpeter Inc., told a few residents during a community meeting in Gonzales in May that the pump would be the first step to help the parish’s drainage problems.
But in this part of south Louisiana, so close to swamps tied to estuaries subject to tidal influences, drainage is a two-sided coin. Systems have to deal with both efficiently moving rainfall downstream and blocking storm surge from heading upstream.
Dredging waterways like Conway and Panama might send rainfall runoff out more quickly, but officials like Roux point out that work also opens a path for storm surge to back up deeper into Ascension Parish. The solution is both levees and pumps.
Officials in both parishes acknowledged, however, that new pumps on the Conway and Panama in Sorrento would push water into St. James due to the two waterways’ locations deep in the swamp and closer to St. James communities than the far-flung Marvin Braud station is.
“If you are going to do it, we need a joint project,” said Roux, who has long disputed claims that the Marvin Braud pumps harm St. James’ drainage.
Roussel suggested Corps’ approval of Sorrento pumps in Ascension probably requires a joint project with St. James.
“I don’t know if Ascension can get approved with another pump station with the possible negative impact they would have,” Roussel said. “They would have to show proof it wouldn’t negatively affect us, and I don’t know if they can do that anymore.”
As an alternative to the West Shore levee extension for St. James, the Corps had proposed raising homes and businesses, small ring levees around Grand Point and other low areas and a series of gates along drainage culverts under La. 3125. The gates, which could be closed in times of high water, would allow the highway to act like a kind of levee.
Ricky Boyett, Corps spokesman, said the Corps has not seen the parishes’ new concept. But he suggested the parishes start talking with the Corps’ West Shore levee team to see how Ascension and St. James’ plan might affect the Corps’ calculation on the West Shore levee’s costs and benefits.
“I just think that it would be a very good idea for the parishes and Corps to be both on the same page as the projects move forward,” Boyett said.
“I guess that is what I’m saying, so there are no surprises in the end,” he said.
Aaron E. Looney contributed to this story. Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave .