GONZALES — An outgoing Ascension Parish councilman and chief advocate of beefing up and extending a controversial flood protection levee in the St. Amant area says it's time to end negotiations with Livingston Parish and go back to court to resolve a dispute that's held up work on the project.

Councilman Randy Clouatre said the flooding dynamics for Ascension are about to change with $1.2 billion in federal flood aid money flowing into the region, so time is running short.

He noted that Baton Rouge plans to use some of the federal money for major channel improvements that would put water on Ascension faster. And, after the fall elections, he said, appointments could change to the Pontchartrain Levee District, which is a formal sponsor of the $24 million levee extension.

"I'm ready to go to court," Clouatre said Monday night. "Let's do whatever we got to do. Let's get this settled to where we don't even have a holdup on the project."

Clouatre's comments came as it also emerged that a key permit for the levee, one that is a subject of the levee litigation, will need to be renewed in January as the levee final design is 95% complete. 

The Laurel Ridge levee has been proposed for several decades for the lowest parts of Ascension near the Amite River. Livingston officials sued last year to block the project after key permits were approved that cleared the way for final design, land acquisition and construction.

French Settlement residents discuss their fears about the ever-present threat of flooding

Livingston contended the levee would worsen flooding in the parish, primarily in the Port Vincent and French Settlement areas.

Congress Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, and parish leaders brokered an agreement in January 2019 to put the suit on hold while they tried to negotiate an agreement to allow the levee to go through along with some combination of other projects to mitigate its impact. Engineering work and related improvements were allowed to proceed, but not construction.

On Tuesday, Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks said his parish continues to honor that agreement. But, he said, Ascension officials have not come up plans to mitigate the projected flooding impact of the levee extension.

"We're trying to be a good neighbor to them, but we have to protect our parish and so far we have to stand firm that it appears there's an impact," Ricks said.

Some modeling done for Ascension suggested a combination of that $24 million extension and the subsequent raising of the existing levee — part of the long-term plan — would have significant flooding impacts on Livingston. However, those models were never shared with regulators who reviewed the levee extension project's permits.

Since that time, Ascension has come up with new modeling, based on more precise land elevation data. Parish officials say that model shows far less flooding impact than the earlier study suggested. It also proposed a mitigation project to be built in concert with the levee upgrades.

In addition to the levee extension, that $186 million plan would also involve building a spillway under La. 22 in the Acy area to allow floodwaters in the Amite River Basin to drain more quickly. The plan further calls for raising the existing Laurel Ridge levee and other levees around the parish's main pump station.

The parish has proposed using a portion of the $1.2 billion in federal flood aid to pay for the combined project.

Ricks said contract engineers working with the state Department of Transportation and Development told his homeland security director and Ascension officials at a recent meeting that their modeling showed the levee extension would cause a 6-inch rise in parts of Livingston. The drainage cuts proposed under La. 22 would only lower the impact to a 4-inch rise, which appears to contradict what Ascension's engineers had reported in December.

"We're hoping, in fact, that they will find a way to offset the impact, but so far there is an impact," Ricks said. "They have not found a way to offset it, and apparently they're not willing to pay for that, as I understand it."

Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa did bring up the meeting with the DOTD engineers on Monday evening, saying it wasn't "too productive because they were all over the place with the modeling."

He said another meeting with Graves and Livingston officials was planned soon, but time was short.

"At that time, we're going to have to take pretty serious about being ready to rock and roll, or else," Matassa said.

In comments to fellow East Ascension drainage board members, Clouatre thanked Graves' office for the help but charged that Livingston officials have no incentive to work with Ascension.

"That's been proven year after year, administration after administration, so let's go on. Let's do what we got to do. I don't think they have any basis for their lawsuit. I'm ready to go to court. Whatever it takes, let's get it squared up," said Clouatre, a three-term councilman who is not seeking reelection. 

Ricks disputed Clouatre's claim Tuesday, saying his parish's incentive is that there be no additional flooding on anyone in either parish.

"That's our incentive, to be a good neighbor, that no one of us floods each other," said Ricks, who called Clouatre a good man who was trying to protect his constituents. Ricks said he's trying to do the same for his constituents.   

Other drainage board members, who all are council members, did not offer support for Clouatre's comments and took no formal action. Clouatre made them during a general administrative update on pending work that normally doesn't result in formal actions by the drainage body.

In addition to Ascension, Livingston's suit names the state Department of Natural Resources as a defendant and seeks to have the agency review the modeling and other data about the levee project that had not previously been part of the analysis for the levee's coastal zone permit from the agency.

Ascension officials disclosed Monday that the coastal zone permit needs to be renewed by January. Although they claimed the process would not require new public comment, officials with DNR said Tuesday that the renewal would require a comment period. 

Graves' office did not immediately respond to email inquiries about Clouatre's comments calling for an end to negotiations with Livingston on the levee project.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.