GONZALES — East Ascension drainage officials are pushing forward with key federal and state permits to remove two low-water dams and dredge three miles of New River Canal inside and outside Gonzales despite lingering questions about the $5.3 million cost.
For more than 15 years, East Ascension drainage officials have pushed, on and off, for a plan to address the negative drainage impact of the small dams, known as weirs, in the canal that winds through the heart of Gonzales but also ties into upstream Ascension Parish waterways like Grand Goudine Bayou.
After some discussions about replacing the dams with removable gates that would allow more water to flow, former Drainage Director Bill Roux, his replacement, Ron Savoy, and several council members have argued that removing the dams wholesale would better improve drainage in Gonzales and even in Prairieville.
They have said the weirs serve only to hold up water levels in the canal for cosmetic purposes. In the process, though, the dams have allowed silt to build up behind them and also inhibit Ascension's pre-storm practice of lowering bayou water levels with Ascension's big drainage pumps to boost rainfall storage capacity.
Both dams are outside Gonzales city limits: One is along Weber City Road behind the Gonzales Walmart on Airline Highway; the other is farther upstream along New River and Cornerview Road inside a tributary that ties the canal with Smith Bayou west of Gonzales.
In October, David Martin, the parish's consulting project manager with H. Davis Cole and Associates, told the East Ascension drainage board that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits would be "a critical path" to bring the $5.3 million project to construction bids in early 2019.
The permits through the corps and also the state Department of Environmental Quality have been on public notice since Dec. 10. Interested parties must ensure mailed comments are delivered by Monday or can email to seek a 30-day extension by then, a joint notice says.
The parish needs the corps' backing both because it plans to work in a waterway under the corps' purview and because of the potential effect on wetlands and endangered species. In a public notice, the corps says it has found initially that neither would be affected. The project also needs a state DEQ water quality certification, a permit that typically runs in connection with federal permits.
Last year, Roux told the East Ascension drainage board that Gonzales city officials had opposed the project more than a decade ago, but after the August 2016 flood the current city administration now favors the work.
Yet, as the project has moved from concept in early 2017 to a more fully designed plan with a $5.3 million to a possibly $6 million price tag, the cost and scope have drawn questions from parish council members. Gonzales city officials have also maintained they should not share in the bill because their residents pay millions of dollars in East Ascension drainage taxes already.
The majority of the cost is not in removing the weirs, Martin has said, but in dredging and reshaping the sides and uneven bottom of New River to improve water flow and then finding a way to haul and dispose of the heavy, wet muck from the canal.
Martin told the board in October the project could be designed in phases to spread out the cost. Since then, Joey Tureau, the parish's chief engineer, said parish officials have been working on reducing the price, particularly around muck disposal.
But the corps permit notice discusses a slightly longer project with about 69 percent more muck excavation than most recently envisioned at public meetings, up from 80,000 cubic yards to 135,000 cubic yards.
The East Ascension drainage board, which is made up of Parish Council members, has a final say on the size and estimated cost of the project once it is ready for bids.
Comments can be mailed to: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District, Regulatory Branch, 7400 Leake Ave., New Orleans, LA 70118, or Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Water Permits Division, Post Office Box 4313, Baton Rouge, LA 70821-4313.