Neighboring parishes downstream from Baton Rouge have cast a wary eye on a $255 million Army Corps of Engineers project to clear out East Baton Rouge's waterways using federal dollars coming to the region after the August 2016 flood.

Birthed after the 1983 flood but stalled for decades, the clearing and dredging plan passed an important milestone when authorities with the city-parish, Central, state and federal government announced this month that they'd found a way to finance a critical $65.6 million match.

Gov. John Bel Edwards committed the biggest share of the upfront money needed, $40 million, as a deadline to tie dollars to the project drew near. The Metro Council is set for a vote Wednesday on its $12.5 million share.

The project calls for clearing, dredging and widening 66 miles of creeks and bayous in East Baton Rouge Parish. The Corps had recommended the project as feasible in July 1995 after more than a decade of study, but without money then to make it a reality. 

The work on Beaver and Blackwater bayous in the Central area and on Bayou Fountain and Jones and Ward creeks and their tributaries in the southern part of the parish is aimed at allowing water to move more quickly downstream into the Amite River and Bayou Manchac.

About 17 miles of those waterways would also be lined with concrete, a measure aimed at controlling erosion and speeding the flow of water.

Some officials in Ascension and Livingston parishes say they're worried about the possible impact but are withholding judgment as the Corps of Engineers reanalyzes the plan 25 years after finding its downstream effects would be minimal. Results are expected next month.

"We're kind of waiting to see and hear if there is going to be any impact," Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks said. 

081919 BR rivers waterways map

A $255 million plan to drain East Baton Rouge Parish: With help from Congress, East Baton Rouge Parish is planning a major clean out of key waterways that drain the parish, but downstream parishes are concerned the water will flood their residents. In 1995, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found a minimal impact, but the Corps is reevaluating its analysis in light of the growth in the region. The 12-mile Comite River Diversion Canal is a separate Corps project already underway. 

City-parish officials say they should be able to take advantage of an opportunity to reduce flood risk in East Baton Rouge as other parishes have but have promised to mitigate any impact downstream, possibly with regional retention areas to hold back some runoff and release it slowly.

"I want to be sure that we're good neighbors, not a problem," said Fred Raiford, the city-parish director of transportation and drainage. "I don't want to be a problem for Iberville, I don't want to be a problem for Ascension and I don't want to be a problem for Livingston."

Teri Casso, chairwoman of the Ascension Parish Council, said officials in her parish want to work with East Baton Rouge, too. But, she said, they have concerns about whether the low-lying Bluff Swamp and the Spanish Lake basin, potentially huge, natural flood storage areas, will be recommended as retention options. 

If they are, Casso said, a lot of conversations will have to take place about how such a plan would affect her constituents who live in the swamp and possible compensation for their property.

"It would be complicated. My constituents love where they live," she said. 

The Corps' 1995 feasibility analysis found that some of the watersheds surrounding the bayous and creeks earmarked for work weren't suitable to major retention efforts, but Raiford said he doesn't know yet what areas might be recommended for regional retention.

Worries about the Corps' Amite River tributary projects in East Baton Rouge are only the latest example of inter-parish conflicts that have flashed after the August 2016 flood, as constituent pressures and billions in federal dollars have reanimated drainage ideas that had sat on the shelf for years.

Last year, Livingston Parish sued Ascension Parish, the Pontchartrain Levee District and the state Department of Natural Resources over Ascension's long-standing plans to extend the Laurel Ridge Levee along the southeastern edge of Amite River Basin in the St. Amant and Lake areas.

The two parishes reached a truce earlier this year to allow engineering work to continue, but officials disagree whether a proposed mitigation project tied to the levee would do enough to protect lower Livingston from worsened flooding expected from the levee extension.

The Corps is also taking a second look at the Darlington Reservoir, a once-dead idea to build a large storage area along the Amite River in St. Helena and East Feliciana parishes to cut flooding in parishes on the lower river.

While the idea has support from downstream officials, it also has sparked renewed opposition from upstream landowners who may stand to lose property.

Disputes over drainage have led to other legal challenges, in addition to the one between Ascension and Livingston over the Laurel Ridge Levee.

With Hurricane Barry headed to the coast last month, East Baton Rouge sued Iberville Parish and others over that parish's use of inflatable AquaDams along Manchac Road to block overflow from Bayou Manchac.

City-parish officials contended the dams would worsen flooding in East Baton Rouge while Iberville officials have said the dams were necessary because of the risk of runoff out of Baton Rouge. Iberville Parish President Mitch Ourso declined to comment Aug. 16, citing that lawsuit in federal court.

Dietmar Rietschier, director of the Amite River Basin Commission, said the back and forth reminded him of an old Times-Picayune editorial cartoon about drainage fights in the New Orleans area: Three or four guys were standing in a circle throwing buckets of water on one another.

The thought of that old cartoon still makes him laugh, he said, but, to avoid those kind of disputes, local officials need to find a way to review the science and mitigate any impacts on their neighbors.

"Look, it goes down to just common sense and (being willing to) sit down at the table," he said.

The Louisiana Watershed Initiative, a post-flood management effort by the state, is expected to create regional councils that would oversee and make recommendations on projects for entire watersheds. However, these future councils, which are still in the development stage and are awaiting federal funding, wouldn't have direct authority over local governments.

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Friday that the move to create regional authorities did take another step after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development published long-awaited guidelines for spending $1.2 billion in flood mitigation money. The state now has to submit a plan for spending the money to HUD.

The commission that Rietschier's leads already encompasses the Amite River Basin, but that entity also has no authority over other parishes.

Prodded by members of Congress, the region's parish presidents emerged from a closed-door drainage summit in January 2017 with promises to work cooperatively and to support a handful regional projects, including the Comite River Diversion Canal and the dredging of Bayou Manchac. They have largely continued that rhetoric since then, despite the recent conflicts.

“We are committed to work with East Baton Rouge on the tributaries project every step of the way,” Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa said Aug. 16.

That's in marked contrast to reactions to the last iteration of the Baton Rouge dredging plans two decades ago. In 1995, the plan was met with strong opposition from downstream residents in Ascension.

Then-Ascension Parish Public Works Director Frank Frederic told Corps officials in a public hearing that he opposed "the clearing of any body of water" in East Baton Rouge that resulted in an increased flow of water to his parish, according to a Corps summary of the meeting.

Amid public concerns then, the Corps did an analysis and found the work would speed up the flow of water downstream, generally increasing peak flow by 5% to 15%.

But the analysis also found that the water would head down stream before chronic backwater flooding took effect on the lower Amite during major events. The Corps concluded then there would be no significant impact.

Ascension Parish Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee, who district includes a Prairieville area that borders Bayou Manchac and the East Baton Rouge line, said the current drainage problems of local residents are due to decisions made by East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes. All have been too willing to allow development to happen without the appropriate infrastructure to support it, he said.

"I think it's rather sad now, frankly, that we have neighbors against neighbors, and the reason for that, in my opinion, is the other parishes surrounding us have done the same thing we did," Satterlee said.

Comparing the 1995 Corps feasibility study with current city-parish data, the number of structures in the watersheds planned for the Corps projects have increased by 1.5 times to 6.5 times since the prior analysis in the mid-'90s.

For instance, the number of structures in the Ward Creek watershed, which empties into Manchac, has increased from 2,471 in the mid-1990s to 18,592 in 2019, city-parish data show. The Jones Creek and Bayou Fountain watersheds have seen similarly large increases, while Blackwater and Beaver bayous have also had increases but less extensive ones.

Increased urbanization generally means the land retains less water than when it was in a more natural state. In an attempt to address that problem, the city-parish has required new developments to mitigate their downstream impacts. 

Ascension, and Livingston to a lesser extent, have done the same, though the practice has drawn controversy in Ascension from homeowners. It is being reevaluated with a major ordinance rewrite in a bid to lessen the impact new development has on drainage. 

Rene Poche, Corps spokesman, said "changing site conditions" have led the agency to run basin-wide models to confirm its conclusions from the mid-1990s. 

Raiford, the East Baton Rouge Parish road and drainage director, said other parishes have been brought in on meetings about the waterway clearing. The analysis by the Corps is expected to provide answers about whether, and how, mitigation should happen, Raiford said.

Cooperation will be necessary for the region's parishes to improve their drainage problems, he noted. 

"There's no parish, none of us, are going to be able to solve our problems just by ourselves, not happening, especially … (with) the intense rainfalls we're getting now, not possible," Raiford observed.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.