The top man overseeing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in south Louisiana said Monday the Comite River Diversion Canal, delayed for more than 30 years over a lack of funding and bureaucratic hurdles, could be built in two years if fully funded.
Col. Michael Clancy, corps district engineer and commander in New Orleans, made the estimate during a freewheeling meeting at DOTD headquarters with area mayors, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves and others a day before Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to pitch President Barack Obama on the need to fund and finish the project.
Some have estimated the diversion — envisioned in the early 1980s during a period of severe flooding, authorized in 1996 and supported with local property taxes since 2001 — would have avoided a quarter of the catastrophic flooding in the Baton Rouge region last week had the structure been finished.
The canal is designed to reroute high water from the Comite River west into the Mississippi River and lessen flooding in the Amite River Basin to the east. The $35 million Lilly Bayou Control Structure, a water-level control structure 2 miles east of the Mississippi, was built in 2011 and is the only major piece of the project that has been finished.
The Amite River Basin Commission expects to soon begin buying some of the property needed to…
Zachary Mayor David Amrhein pressed Clancy and other officials Monday during the hour-long meeting for a ballpark estimate on how long it would take to build the $250 million project so he could report that to his constituents.
"I'm asking for just a general idea. Five years, 10 years, 15, 20," Amrhein asked.
"Very fair question, and I'm reluctant to give you an answer because I don't know, based on funding … so perfect world, unlimited funding, it would take about two years to build," Clancy said. "You look at what the Corps of Engineers did in New Orleans after Katrina, it shows when the funding is there, we can build and do stuff."
The $14 billion investment the Corps made in New Orleans after Katrina incorporated some previously stalled projects in that city, though several new ones as well.
Shawn Wilson, state Department of Transportation and Development secretary, explained to Amrhein and others that major events like the Baton Rouge flood or Katrina are the time to make "an exceptional request to get something done."
Wilson added that he and Johnny Bradberry, Edwards' executive assistant on coastal activities and a former DOTD secretary, planned to brief Edwards about the project and, in coordination with the corps, on how much would be needed to finish the diversion in advance of Obama's visit.
While Wilson told Amrhein he couldn't tell him when the diversion would be finished, "we will tell you, on tomorrow, we're going to be putting a figure in front of the president of the United States ideally that will be consistent with what the colonel (Clancy) is sending up his food chain, so there is unanimity in thought on what we need."
A call to the White House press office Monday evening was not returned.
State officials and aides to the two congressmen in the meeting Monday sensed an opportunity for funding.
Ron Anderson, a senior policy adviser to Cassidy, announced moments before Clancy made his estimate that the senator would have an opportunity next month when Congress considers a continuing funding resolution for the federal government.
Wilson said plans for the diversion are 95 percent finished, waiting in part on utility relocation estimates, and all that should be left is funding for construction.
Bobby Duplantier, the Corps' senior project manager for the diversion, said in a later interview that the overall project, including the constructed Lilly Bayou structure, will cost about $245 million. About $165 million is needed to finish the job.
Duplantier said the federal share is $125 million, while the local and state share is another $40 million.
Trey Poirrier and Jerry Gravois stood in waist-deep floodwater near the St. Amant Fire Depar…
Residents in East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes have paid an estimated $25 million into the diversion since a 3-mill property tax was passed in 2000 within the Amite River Basin. Collections started the next year.
But while Cassidy, the Baton Rouge Republican, said he supports the diversion, he also advocated for a likely more costly systemwide approach that would take into account the entire Amite basin, which also covers East Feliciana and St. Helena parishes in Louisiana and three counties in Mississippi.
One concern Cassidy shared with Clancy before the meeting began Monday is whether future drainage improvements planned for Bayou Fountain in East Baton Rouge could inadvertently worsen flooding on Bayou Manchac, which receives Bayou Fountain's water.
High water currently in Manchac is being blamed for high water in the Spanish Lake Basin, which has flooded homes in Ascension and Iberville parishes and threatened state prisons. Officials in Ascension Parish are planning to cut open a road later this week to allow the water out.
Ascension Parish officials estimate they will cut into Alligator Bayou Road Wednesday or Thu…
Cassidy floated the idea of a relief system on Manchac to pump water from the bayou into the Mississippi, as one example of this systemwide approach.
In earlier remarks, Clancy said the inconsistency of funding has hindered the project. He added that past Corps' analyses found the Comite diversion had a cost-benefit figure of less than 2, which hinders the diversion when it's weighed against other projects. The Corps is reanalyzing that figure in light of rapid development in the basin.
But, Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who said he invited many of the local officials to the meeting, pointed out to Clancy that after more steady funding in the '90s, the Corps had shifted $40 million from the diversion in more recent history for other Corps projects.
Graves, like the mayors and others, took the opportunity Monday to impress upon Clancy and others that it is the diversion's turn.
"Why can't this be our day where the Corps goes around and looks at accounts around the country and lets us, for once, not be a bill payer, but actually be a receiver," Graves said.
While the focus of the meeting became jump-starting the diversion, the gathering also underscored the grinding process of fits and starts that the canal has had to work through in absence of sure funding.
Wilson announced that the meeting — previously scheduled as a working meeting with the Corps and far fewer public officials or the press — was originally meant to hash out utility relocation details for new bridges that will have to be built over the future canal at Airline Highway.
Wilson wanted assurances from the Corps that it would have money to build the bridges if the state spends an estimated $15 million on relocations.
It also emerged that while land acquisition for the diversion has been moving forward, some land would have to be expropriated. There was debate among the various officials whether the Corps has that authority yet.