A commission that oversees some rivers and bayous in the Baton Rouge region isn't doing enough to keep water flowing and prevent flooding, a new state report says.

But its authors say the commission could, with an overhaul, be the leader of the hodgepodge of parishes that currently share responsibility for cleaning up crucial waterways like the Amite River and Bayou Manchac. 

Those waterways are the primary drainage outlets for East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes. When they back up, areas where thousands of people live can flood. 

But those rivers and bayous cross multiple parish lines — in some cases, they are the parish lines — and that often leaves it ambiguous whose job it is to keep them flowing right. 

For example, people who live near Bayou Manchac were recently alarmed to see contractors cleaning only the Ascension side of the bayou, leaving the East Baton Rouge side untouched; officials with the latter parish said they just hadn't gotten their part of the contract approved yet.

In a report Thursday, the Coastal Protection Restoration Authority said this kind of confusion could be reduced if the Amite River Basin Commission took a more active role. 

The commission already has the power to be a central authority for the basin, but it has failed to exercise that power for a number of reasons, including lack of funding, lack of manpower and concerns about a lack of support from local governments and residents for new regulations or taxes, the report found.

Instead of broadly quarterback flood-fighting efforts, the authority was focused almost exclusively on the long-running Comite River Diversion Canal project, which is now under construction after years of delays and criticism for the slow pace of work, the report said.

The report was prompted last year by legislation from state Rep. Buddy Mincey, R-Denham Springs.

With new leadership, governance structure and other changes that would require new legislation, CPRA officials argued the commission could become a Louisiana model for watershed management.

"Myriad federal, state, and local agencies have authority affecting watershed management in the (Amite River Basin). None, however, amount to control, except that of (Amite River Basin Commission), which exists on the face of the statutes, but which ARBC has never exercised," the report found.

The report calls for expanding the commission's authority to the rest of Ascension and St. James parishes and the eastern part of Iberville Parish. It also called for changing the 13-member commission so it is composed of the seven parish presidents in its jurisdiction and six at-large members with professional qualifications.

Currently, members are appointed by the governor and have no qualification requirements except residency. New projects would need a two-thirds vote.

The report also called for new planning and reporting requirements to the Legislature and others, noting that some local leaders who control drainage projects currently don't know about the commission or who their representatives on it were.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

To pay for the work, the CPRA initially proposed state funding, but also called for making it easier for the commission to pass new tax: with a single, districtwide vote, instead of both districtwide approval and parish-by-parish approval, as is currently required.

Following the 2016 floods in the Baton Rouge area, a major influx of federal dollars spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, and other officials jump-started the Comite Diversion, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project.

Graves used to run the agency that issued the report and is active in efforts to improve flood prevention in the area. He said the report "acknowledged that the status quo was unacceptable."

"It proposed a bold new vision for the (commission) that recognizes the organization’s inherent authority to manage the watershed while making suggestions to improve the development and delivery of regionally impactful projects and management practices," Graves said. "The CPRA recommendation deserves serious discussion because we are running out of time, and despite the massive haul of 2018 flood funds, we will soon run out of money."

The changes could happen at a time when the state is trying to spur that same kind of management vision across the state through its post-2016 flood Louisiana Watershed Initiative, the report noted.

Dietmar Rietschier, the longtime executive director of the commission, said he was only able to briefly peruse the report Thursday afternoon but saw its conclusions as a way to "advance the commission to a higher level."

"That would require resources and that would require funding. It cannot be done on the present set-up, so speak," he said.

The commission was created in 1981 after heavy flooding in the late 1970s and has two paid staff members, Rietschier and another employee. They are overseen by a board with paid and volunteer members who receive meeting per diem payments. The body also has contract legal and engineering help.

For 20 years, the commission collected a small property tax in parts of East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes to help finance the Comite Diversion, but the tax expired in 2020.

The commission currently has no recurring revenue source but has about $9.9 million in the bank dedicated to the Comite Diversion. Another $1.6 million in reserve is not dedicated to any purpose.

Mincey declined to comment Thursday on the report's conclusions, saying he hadn't yet had a chance to read the 67-page document.

But he and other legislators in the basin have been discussing new legislation this year that would create or empower an entity to take over maintenance of neglected major waterways in the Amite basin that have shared jurisdiction, like the Amite River, Blind River and Bayou Manchac.

The Corps of Engineers, for instance, last dredged the Amite River in the mid-1960s, a spokesman said.

State Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville, referenced this brewing plan last week during a community meeting in Ascension Parish about a joint Ascension-East Baton Rouge de-snagging and clearing project on Bayou Manchac.

In an interview this week before the report became public, Lambert said concern over maintenance of waterways like Manchac and Amite that fall into multiple jurisdictions is what has been driving interest in the new legislation. He said legislators were waiting on the CPRA report to decide what kind of legislation to fashion.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.

Tags