As Acadiana political leaders preach cooperation across parish lines in regional flood control efforts, the Lafayette City-Parish Council on Tuesday will consider an idea that so far has proved divisive: dredging the Vermilion River.
The council on Tuesday will take up a resolution calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to “expeditiously” dredge the river, or to provide all permits necessary for to city-parish government undertake the project. The river was last dredged to its authorized depths of nine feet in the 1940s, but it has not been touched since then — with the exception of a one-mile dredging project two decades ago.
Dredging proponents in Lafayette say the river is now far too shallow after decades of unabated silting, increasing the risk of flooding every year.
“I live on the river, and every heavy rainfall I watch the river move upstream instead of downstream, as it’s supposed to,” resident Sarah Schoeffler said at the City-Parish Council meeting Aug. 6. “Those shallow spots just act as dams.”
But Vermilion Parish leaders are concerned that a deeper river in Lafayette will flow more quickly to the south, jeopardizing lives and property along the way. Saltwater intrusion damage to marshes is another concern.
Also, the benefits of dredging are still an open question. Preliminary tests of a computer modeling system being developed at the Louisiana Watershed Flood Center at University of Louisiana at Lafayette have shown mixed results, said the center’s director, Emad Habib.
Deepening the river won’t necessarily prevent it from flooding during larger storms, given the region’s flat topography, though it could help with average-size ones, Habib said.
“The answer is not universal. To convey water from point A to point B, you have to have a conduit with a certain slope. Making the conduit bigger is equivalent to adding more storage,” Habib said in an email, adding that the testing is ongoing. “This storage can help during average-size storms, but might be overwhelmed during major storms.”
Other studies are ongoing or in planning stages. The Acadiana Planning Commission plans to install river gauges throughout the Teche-Vermilion watershed, and to use the resulting data to better predict how water moves throughout the region. The Corps, meanwhile, is doing its own hydraulic modeling to determine if a Lafayette dredging project will impact surrounding communities.
The city-parish public works director, Mark Dubroc, sounded skeptical at the Aug. 6 council meeting after hearing from residents, council members and staffers for U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins who want to see the river dredged.
“All of this conversation is devoid of any technical support,” Dubroc said, observing the lack of thorough study on the impacts.
The council resolution up for consideration Tuesday straightforwardly calls for a dredging project, with no mention of possible effects on other areas. The resolution is not intended to support any project that will harm any community outside of Lafayette, said Councilwoman Liz Hebert, one of the six sponsors. If the Corps modeling project shows negative impacts elsewhere, the council will not move forward with dredging, Hebert said.
“Obviously we would not want to dredge if it’s going to have negative effects on any of our neighbors, just as we would hope none of our neighbors would dredge if it would negatively affect us,” Hebert said.
But Hebert — along with William Theriot, Jared Bellard, Bruce Conque, Pat Lewis and Nanette Cook — wanted to pass the resolution to kickstart the long process of applying for permits and getting work under way. The renewed urgency partially stems from the revelation that the city-parish can dredge the river at its own discretion, assuming it obtains permits, as a Higgins staffer informed council members at the Aug. 6 meeting.
“This is just us being proactive,” Hebert said. “We have just been told, time and time again, there is nothing you can do. You don’t have jurisdiction.”
A Corps spokesman confirmed Monday that local government can initiate its own dredging project. One possibility is to focus only on “hot spots,” or the areas where silting is most severe. A limited dredging project is estimated to cost about $5 million, while deepening the river to authorized dimensions throughout the parish could run 10 times that amount.
If the resolution succeeds, Hebert said she plans to solicit support from neighboring parishes, adding she hopes everyone in the region will be “speaking the same language in unison.”
But Vermilion Parish president, Kevin Sagrera, said unity on dredging isn’t likely until the impacts are fully known.
“We don’t want to block any water. The water has to come down through Vermilion Parish, and Vermilion Parish knows that. But we want to know what’s going to be the effects,” Sagrera said.
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