GONZALES — Ascension Parish government has a regular practice, stepped up in recent years under Parish President Clint Cointment's administration, of pumping down waterways before major storms.
The idea is to lower water levels in the waterways that drain parts of Gonzales, Galvez, Sorrento and St. Amant before runoff from heavy rain hits them. But the practice has drawn criticism from downstream residents in neighboring parishes who say that pumped water ends up in their backyards instead.
Now the parish is making changes that will expand the practice into Geismar, western Gonzales, parts of Dutchtown and southern Prairieville — areas flooded in May's massive rainstorms.
In the first step of that effort, parish crews finished modifications Thursday to a weir at Smith Bayou, inserting two 42-inch diameter drainage pipes with control gates into the low-water dam.
Two years after a flood ravaged the capital region, construction of new homes proceeds in much the same way.
The new pipes will allow water sitting below the top of the weir to drain past the dam for the first time in decades and into New River. A weir is a low, overflow dam that holds back water up to a certain point before allowing water to run over it.
As a potential tropical cyclone bore down on the Louisiana coast late Friday morning — it ended up mostly sparing the Baton Rouge area — the pipes were already opened and draining waterways upstream.
The east bank drainage district also separately made procedural moves to kickstart a long-planned, nearly $7.9 million dredging project in New River that has been stalled in court for months, despite having key regulatory approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Part of that project will modify a second, downstream weir in New River behind the Gonzales Walmart. Together, the dredging and the second improved weir are expected to further enhance the drainage potential of the parish pump system, administration officials say.
"You're now going to be able to have that benefit upstream of these weirs, and pre-storms, we can incorporate these into our draw-down process," Ron Savoy, Ascension's public works director, told the drainage panel Thursday.
Some parts of New River that will be dredged are just 18 inches deep, Savoy said.
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The drainage efforts were underway as the Parish Council adopted a nine-month moratorium on new development, spurred by the mid-May flooding. Builders opposed to the moratorium accused the parish of not doing enough drainage work with its ample resources.
The East Ascension drainage board comprises 10 of 11 Parish Council members, who also weighed in on the moratorium.
Two of those members, Councilmen Corey Orgeron and Aaron Lawler, aired worries that the panel might be acting outside its legal authority by using parish workers for part of the drainage job under emergency authority.
They have also generally questioned the Cointment administration's spending and apparent lack of planning and advanced engineering work for emergency drainage projects popping up in the face of the recent rains. They also were proponents of a shorter development halt than the parish president wanted.
The administration hasn't provided spending estimates for much of the largely in-house work so far. Cointment has said repeatedly he is focused right now on protecting homeowners.
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Officials say the future drainage works won't be operated in a way that harms downstream residents.
The simmering conflict flared anew after the Parish Council adopted the moratorium late Thursday night and as Cointment was speaking to reporters. Orgeron accused Cointment of dragging his feet on the newly approved drainage work that Orgeron said he had been begging the administration to address since February 2020.
"You've been begging me to do nothing," Cointment fired back. "Just go away."
"This is the challenges I have every day. This is what I fight against," Cointment said moments after Orgeron walked off.
The two weirs — the one at Smith Bayou, a tributary of New River, and the other in New River itself — are part of a watershed that is an important feeder for eastern Ascension's main Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station. The watershed includes areas along Smith Bayou, Grand Goudine Bayou and its tributaries, up to the Bluff Swamp.
These two weirs' primary goal has been aesthetic, keeping water in the bayous to improve their appearance and helping keep down vegetation that could spring up if the unimpeded waterways were allowed to dry periodically as they likely would naturally.
But the weirs also limited the reach of Marvin Braud's big diesel pumps, so various Ascension councils and administrations have sporadically proposed removing or modifying them.
In 2017, then-President Kenny Matassa and drainage officials proposed dredging several miles of the New River Canal and removing both weirs.
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After problems with the bid for that project, it was modified to add control gates to the Smith Bayou weir and re-bid, only to spur a lawsuit in late 2020 by the losing bidder. The dispute has remained in court and held up the project, though a proposed dismissal is pending.
On Thursday, acting, in part, under the authority of an emergency declaration begun last month and extended Friday by Cointment in the face of the coming storm, the East Ascension drainage board agreed to rebid only part of the revised project and farm out part of it to parish staff.
Parish workers will dredge a portion downstream of the Smith Bayou weir to the mouth of Goudine bayou; a contractor will handle the remaining part farther downstream. Savoy told drainage officials the parish expects to have its dredging done in 120 days.
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He said later the combined cost of the newly bid section and the work to be done by parish workers won't significantly change the overall cost, but he couldn't yet provide an exact estimate.
When asked, Parish Attorney Jean-Paul Robert also claimed the vote to rebid would bring an end to the litigation over the earlier version of the project by making it moot.