As hundreds of their neighbors in nearby parishes saw their homes go underwater during recent floods, residents in Central and elsewhere in the Amite River basin white-knuckled their way through a long weekend watching the waters rise.
Ultimately, the storms weren’t as bad for most of those in the basin, although river water did swamp the homes of dozens of people around French Settlement.
The floods were a brutal reminder of the Comite River Diversion Canal, or rather, the place on the map where the canal is supposed to be. Residents have grown old waiting for the canal to be dug and, 30 years later, have yet to see results.
Talk of a canal began in earnest after the destructive flood of 1983. Two years later, the state went to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a solution.
The plan calls for a canal through the Baker area connecting the Comite to the Mississippi River, which will help drain the area during high water. The project also will affect the Amite River, which joins with the Comite near the U.S. 190 bridge at the Livingston-East Baton Rouge parishes line.
At present, the Corps estimates the project will end up costing $211 million, which Central Mayor Jr. Shelton called “a drop in the bucket” compared with the cost of rebuilding the basin after a major flood or two.
However, construction depends on funding from locals, the state and the federal government, and various officials have pointed fingers at one another over perceived wastefulness and short-sightedness. Congress, the Corps, the state government — all have been blamed for the holdup.
“Whose fault is it? Everybody’s,” said state Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs.
Dietmar Rietschier is the executive director of the Amite River Basin Commission, which since 2001 has collected a 3-mill property tax in East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes and which oversees local efforts to build the canal. One of the commission’s duties is to purchase land for the project, including property that will be set aside as wetlands mitigation to counteract the ecological effect of digging the canal.
Rietschier described a chicken-and-egg scenario where the commission wanted to buy land but couldn’t get the Corps to provide plans for the project, saying the commission had to buy mitigation land before the canal project could proceed.
“They are holding us hostage,” Rietschier said. “They are very bureaucratic in nature. ... We’ve had some very confrontational meetings.”
Bobby Duplantier, senior project manager for the Corps, sees things differently. Eventually, it all comes down to dollars and cents, and the Corps scrapes by with little funding for the canal every year. Facing a $211 million project, it got $96,515 in 2014, $2.4 million in 2013 and zero funding for the canal each of the previous two years.
“A lot of the little things have been done,” Duplantier said, including designs and the construction of a water-level control facility, but to build “big-ticket items,” someone’s going to have to pony up more substantial money.
“At some point, you’re either gonna build a bridge or you’re not,” Duplantier remarked.
And the Corps can’t claim someone’s property under eminent domain unless they’re sure the government will be able to use it, he added
Congressman Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, has been critical of the Corps, though, saying it squandered opportunities in the mid-1990s to early 2000s.
Rietschier said Hurricane Katrina pulled the Corps’ focus in 2005.
Yet before then, Graves noted, the Corps was budgeted millions per year for the canal but didn’t use it, allowing the funding to be shifted to other projects. He also claimed the Corps considered only a limited area for wetland mitigation when it could have looked elsewhere and, in one instance, planned to take years to do what could have been finished in months
“For the Corps of Engineers to blame anyone but themselves for the delays is disingenuous. ... (If they were a private firm), they rightfully would have been run out of business decades ago,” the congressman said.
While Rietschier says federal funding is the main culprit for the construction delay, he said the project also is not receiving needed help from the state.
“It’s not a sustainable process,” he said.
Hodges said a lack of funding from the state Department of Transportation and Development is part of the reason why the canal has stalled.
Asked when the canal finally will be built, leaders had no answer.
Graves deferred to the Corps and the basin commission.
Rietschier said construction will take five to seven years, but he doesn’t know when the money to pay for it will come through, so ultimately, he isn’t sure when the canal will be finished.
“How can I answer the question?” he asked.
“It’s dependent on funding,” Duplantier, of the Corps, said.
“Hopefully before I die,” said the 61-year-old Hodges.
Recent floods elsewhere in the state have rekindled interest in the canal.
“We really dodged a bullet,” Hodges said.
Shelton, the Central mayor, said, “All you’ve got to do is look at Tangipahoa Parish,” which was severely flooded, to see the destruction a flood can wreak.
Yet even before the recent flood that washed out the state, the canal project saw signs of life.
About eight months ago, the final mitigation land was purchased, clearing a major hurdle, said Hodges, who also has established a task force to oversee the project.
The local congressional delegation secured $12 million in funding in 2015 and is expected to deliver at least $4 million more in 2016. The basin commission is trying to see if new legislation will allow it to kick in some of the local funding for construction projects.
The Corps has begun construction on a highway and railroad bridge on La. 61. In 2011, construction finished on the $35 million Lily Bayou Stage Control Structure, which eventually will control the level of the canal and prevent backflow from the Mississippi. Now, authorities want to start building a portion of the actual canal. Rietschier would like to start by going from Lily Bayou, which drains into the Mississippi, to the Baton Rouge Bayou about 2 miles away. It’s about a third of the way to the Comite.
“I think that is a reasonable, achievable goal,” he said, adding that it still will require state and federal support.
Duplantier said building pieces of the canal from west to east is the logical way to go. Plans show the canal also will have to cross the Cypress and White bayous before reaching the Comite. Moving from the west will allow those bodies of water to drain into the Mississippi, though the full effect will not be apparent until the Comite is eventually linked, whenever that may be.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.