Facing the possibility of catastrophic rainfall and flooding from a tropical system, Acadiana officials are taking early steps to lower water levels in the Vermilion River and area bayous and swamps, hoping to increase their ability to handle the expected deluge.

But one proposal that could help reduce flooding in Lafayette isn't going to happen because of bureaucracy, Harold Schoeffler, chairman, Acadiana Group of the Sierra Club, said.

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Harold Schoeffler, Chair of the Sierra Club Acadian Chapter, left, and concerned citizen Howard Boyer study a map of the Bayou Courtableau area prior to the start of a public forum exploring possible solutions to flooding problems in Acadiana on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, at the South Regional Library in Lafayette, La.

The Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District stopped pumping fresh water from Bayou Courtableau into Bayou Teche and the Vermilion River on Monday. Within 24 hours, the bayou dropped from 18.1 feet to 16.9 feet at Washington, said Schoeffler , who pushed officials to use existing water quality structures to assist with flood control during anticipated heavy rain events.

Fresh water regularly is pumped from Bayou Courtableau in St. Landry Parish into Bayou Teche and the Vermilion River to improve water quality. Water from the Atchafalaya River used to flow into the Vermilion River via Bayou Courtableau. That ended when the Corps of Engineers built levees along the Atchafalaya River following the 1927 flood.

The fresh water district's mission is to maintain water quality, not flood control. However, during the August 2016 deluge, when hundreds of homes flooded in Lafayette Parish alone, district officials shut down the Bayou Courtableau pumps, Lafayette City-Parish Councilwoman Nanette Cook said.

The action came too late to lower levels in the Vermilion River, which overflowed and backed up, contributing to flooding in and around Lafayette Parish.

"This go-round," she said, "they decided since we know this is coming we need turn it off sooner. We're hoping to have a two-foot drop in the Vermilion River before the rain starts."

The benefit from shutting down the Bayou Courtableau pump, Teche-Vermilion Executive Director Donald Sagrega said, is primarily to St. Landry, with some benefit to Iberia, St. Martin and Lafayette parishes, largely because a control structure on Ruth Canal in St. Martin Parish is closed during heavy rainfall, shutting off the flow of water from Bayou Teche into the Vermilion River.

The best news for Lafayette, Sagrera said, is that low tides and winds from the north have lowered the Vermilion River in recent weeks and emptied the Cypress Island swamp north of Lafayette Regional Airport, increasing their capacity to handle tropical rainfall.

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Aerial photo of Vermilion River south of Maurice taken Sunday, August 14, 2016, in Lafayette Parish.

David Cheramie, director of Vermilionville and the Bayou Vermilion District, said the Vermilion River, at 5.4 feet Wednesday, is on the low side. It averages 5 to 6 feet depending on the tides.

Schoeffler, in a July 8 letter to the Corps and local officials, requested they open the Keystone Lock on Bayou Teche about 4-5 miles south of St. Martinville before the storm hits to increase the holding capacity in upper Bayou Teche and the Vermilion River.

"It will have enormous impact on Lafayette," Schoeffler said Wednesday morning. "The most important thing we can do is open Keystone."

But the Keystone Lock won't be used for flood control.

St. Martin Parish President Chester Cedars said the decision lies with the Corps of Engineers. Schoeffer said a Corps official told him Wednesday the decision was Cedars' to make.

Even if it was his decision, Cedars said he would not open the lock without studies or expert advice about the positive and negative impacts north and south of the lock, and whether the structure can handle stress of being opened during a flood.

"Without experts, models or studies as to the viability of opening the lock for flood control," Cedars said, "experimenting under these circumstances would not be prudent."

Martin Poirier, St. Martin Parish public works director, said if the lock was opened during a flood, it would create a strong current that might damage the structure and prevent it from being closed again. Consideration also has to be given to what happens to Iberia and Vermilion parishes if more water is sent their way by opening the lock.

Schoeffler said Cedars and the Corps are hiding behind bureaucracy.

"They should be installing dynamite as we speak" to blow up the lock and save a thousand homes from flooding, he said.

Acadiana Business Today: Latest tropical storm update shifts path east, which could mean less rain for Acadiana; Steps taken to lower Vermilion River, bayou, swamp levels before tropical rainfall


Email Claire Taylor at ctaylor@theadvocate.com.