PRAIRIEVILLE — Paul Underwood’s backyard garden has been a treasured pastime since retiring nearly 30 years ago from work at a retail store, but heavy rains and the parish’s inadequate drainage system have made keeping it up difficult.
Even before Thursday’s torrential downpour, recent rains were sending a tide of brown, silty water from the neighboring Brookstone subdivision construction site washing over Underwood’s tomatoes, cucumbers, jalapeño peppers and other vegetables.
"I've never had water back here before," the 82-year-old said. "I've been here 20 years."
The water problems plaguing Ascension residents like Underwood haven’t gone unnoticed by federal regulators.
In early February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found Ascension Parish government violated the U.S. Clean Water Act for a series of failures with its municipal stormwater program.
Stormwater programs are designed to control runoff from construction sites like the 86-home Brookstone and take other measures to help quality in area waterways, such as Ascension's already impaired bayous like Bayou Manchac.
Federal law requires that Ascension and other local governments inspect and police runoff from construction sites, ensuring sediment from bare ground doesn't find its way into streams and waterways.
With the parish's five-year permit renewal recently adopted last year, an EPA inspector visited the parish in October and found shortcomings with its stormwater drainage system that were termed "marginal" or "unsatisfactory."
Among other problems, the inspector found the parish’s stormwater ordinance was “insufficient” and that it has no formal schedule for or method to prioritize inspections of stormwater controls at active construction sites.
The inspector’s report also found the parish lacked a standard procedure to increase penalties for chronic offenders and did not regularly document inspections or confirm that developers had obtained the required stormwater permits.
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The inspector’s report focused on drainage issues that are related but separate from requirements on using fill, or dirt, to raise new homes built in Ascension. Those rules have recently sparked controversy in Ascension over attempts to limit the practice, which Parish President Kenny Matassa successfully vetoed last month.
In fact, Brookstone's 29-acre site has exposed earth because developers dug ponds and elevated land by shifting earth around under those fill rules.
The current stormwater failures aren't the first time the parish has had violations. They date back to 2006.
Following the Oct. 24 EPA inspection, the agency issued an administrative order for the parish to get its program in line. Some Parish Council members said in recent interviews that they were not aware of the EPA order.
William Daniel, the parish's infrastructure director, did mention the parish's problems in passing in April when he announced that the parish had hired Malcolm "Mac" Sayes, the parish's new stormwater compliance engineer and storm sewer permit compliance officer.
After that announcement, The Advocate filed a records request and obtained letters, reports and other materials documenting the EPA order and the parish's response. The state Department of Environmental Quality also provided documents.
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In addition to touting Sayes, who is an experienced hand with stormwater control efforts, the parish told the EPA and DEQ in March that the parish was designating a longtime parish employee for inspections and was implementing new permit software by mid-2019 to ease permitting and the documentation of inspectors' findings.
At the same time, the parish indicated it believes its ordinances are adequate to control runoff from construction sites.
Jennah Durant, an EPA spokeswoman, said the parish complied with the initial 30-day deadline to respond to the order the federal agency issued in February.
Martin McConnell, parish spokesman, described the current inspection program for construction sites as robust, saying regular visits are being paid to all of the parish’s construction sites.
"We have written numerous paper copy reports of all our inspections, including Brookstone, and will soon be able to use the new electronic information system that has been under development," McConnell said.
He added that the parish had visited Brookstone "on numerous occasions, and cited them for not following (best management practices) and following their stormwater plan."
Yet, Underwood, the Prairieville resident, said the black siltation-control fence now behind his home was not present in late May when his garden was flooded, although the site had been under construction for months.
He said two parish supervisors later told him the fence should have been put up far earlier in the construction project, “so there was a laxity somewhere."
Once Underwood complained to parish government about the flooding, more than a dozen parish workers, including Daniel, showed up at Brookstone. The silt fence soon followed, Underwood said.
Deric Murphy, whose engineering firm represents Brookstone's developer, America Homeland, did not dispute the silt fence wasn't up initially.
Contractors are temporarily routing water to the ditch behind the homes of Underwood and his neighbors while detention ponds are being dug, Murphy said. But, he said, the runoff will eventually flow into the ponds, not the ditch.
The builders also plan to improve Underwood's ditch and the drainage from it into nearby ditches and storage ponds, Murphy said.
Until then, however, heavy rains continue to cause problems for Underwood.