On a Father’s Day weekend Amite River getaway, Keith Hilliard slid off his inner tube to look for something he dropped in the water. He never resurfaced.
The 53-year-old father of senior LSU pitcher Ma'Khail Hilliard was the first of two people to drown in the Amite this summer while renting inner tubes from Tiki Tubing, a popular water sports company. Since June, more than 30 of its customers have been rescued.
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What’s causing so many accidents in such a short time is unclear. But some local officials and experts have singled out the river’s high water after a summer of record rainfall, and hidden traps of debris piled beneath the surface. They say the tubing accidents point to a waterway that desperately needs maintenance after more than a century of human-caused transformation.
The Amite has been dramatically altered by, among other forces, development booms in surrounding parishes and sand and gravel mining further upstream. More than half a century has passed since it was last dredged.
“It’s just part of the overall culture that we don’t think that these rivers need to be maintained,” Amite River Basin Commission Executive Director Dietmar Rietschier said. “We know we need to maintain highways because people drive on them. But the rivers, we don’t.”
The tragedies along the Amite should serve as a wake-up call that the river must be tended, he said, because the consequences affect more than just inner-tubers.
"It has to be done in a proactive way," Rietschier added. "We only react when it gets critical."
The Amite River has long drawn visitors seeking relief from Louisiana's summertime heat. It's long been deadly, too.
The hell of high water
Gene Baker remembers what the Amite River used to look like before it became choked with silt, logs and debris downriver.
“I’m an old timer, but old timers who know the river better will say spots that were 16 to 18 feet deep are now 4 to 5 feet deep because of sand,” said Baker, a drainage chairman in Livingston Parish.
To explain how this happened, Baker described a relative who owns property upriver, where the Amite flows more freely. That land was mined for gravel, leaving a giant sand mound along the bank.
“(After) the last storm came through,” he said, “that is bare ground now.”
As the storm pushed much of the sand down the Amite toward Livingston, some likely caught on downed trees, riparian curves and backed-up debris along the way. Pollution by silt, Baker said, “happens hundreds of times along the river.”
That’s why many places along the river run far shallower than they used to, which makes detritus more visible — toppled trees, tangled branches, old tires, furniture and deflated inner tubes lie closer to the surface of the silt-packed lower Amite. The problem goes deeper than the scattered eyesores, however.
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“It’s also dangerous around the turns of the river,” Rietschier said. “That’s where you have a lot of debris under the surface of the water, and people get (caught) in those things.”
People have tossed all kinds of junk into the river over the years “without thinking,” he said. The trash hinders travel along the river and causes flooding when it clusters at bridges and bends.
“When high water comes,” he said, “all of that material that has been accumulated either by nature or by man, all of a sudden comes down at one time.”
A changed channel
Hydrologist Bob Jacobsen calls the Amite “fragile and dynamic” — shifting, transforming long before human influence.
Over the last century, of course, people became another factor in the riverine changes, intervening with often unanticipated consequences.
“We started modifying these rivers going back to the late 1800s when we wanted to be able to move steamboats up and down, and then extensively after World War II,” Jacobsen said. “We have messed with this river system in trying to increase its flood carrying capacity. We’re still living with tremendous impacts of that.”
Attempts to reduce and divert flooding, such as dredging and building the Amite River Diversion Canal in the late 1950s, have irrevocably altered the river.
“It’s like unclogging your drain,” Jacobsen explained. “You’re unclogging the system and making it quicker so water can get all the way down to the lake to sea level.”
These efforts moved floodwater out faster, but they inadvertently caused erosion upriver as faster-moving water carved off sediment along steeper banks as it moved downriver.
Meanwhile, sand and gravel mining — which exploded in the post-war boom to meet demands for paved roads — reworked the middle stretches of the waterway for decades to come. Even now, the industry remains largely unregulated, according to a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.
“I know we have tried to find a way to even just count how many sand and gravel pits there are and where they’re located,” agency spokesman Patrick Courreges said. “But we don’t have any authority, jurisdictionally, to tell anyone to report anything to us.”
Mining “nuked the landscape” as the operations dug up areas along the riverbank, he said, causing the channel to shorten as the curves of the river, known as “meanders,” straightened out.
A straighter, direct path means the water is carried downriver faster and with more intensity, heightening flood risk.
“It washes out tremendous stretches of the river,” Jacobsen said. “Water moving from upstream to downstream previously had to go through a long series of loops and took longer to get downstream. And faster flowing flood water also brings with it more sediment."
More buildings, more runoff
At the same time, development has proliferated along the lower river, particularly in Ascension and Livingston parishes.
According to recent census data, Ascension Parish saw the second-fastest growth rate in Louisiana in the last decade. Livingston ranked seventh.
With asphalt and concrete covering ever more land, the river becomes more likely to spill over its banks into the nearby communities, according to Craig Colten, a professor emeritus in the geography and anthropology department at Louisiana State University.
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“(Development) means more buildings, more parking lots and more runoff,” he said. “If you have a forest and a pasture, a lot of the water will seep in. If you look at the rate of a river’s rise, it’s going to rise much faster in an urbanized area than in a forest.”
The 2016 flood was a case in point. Heavy rains filled the Amite, which seeped into homes, forcing people to move or rebuild.
Colten fears that if a powerful hurricane — or even a lingering storm — dropped 60 inches of rain into the Amite River Basin, the flooding could be “devastating.”
“I don’t think anybody who’s involved in climate and meteorology questions we’re not going to see more of these heavier, wetter rainfall events that could be damaging,” he said. “We’re also going to see bigger and more intense hurricanes.”
Governments must increasingly reckon with how to respond.
“How do you build safely? How do you zone for safety? How do you encourage safe use of the river?” Colten asked. “Put safety first — if not first, at the very least, put it at the same level as economic development. Because right now safety is way down the ladder in terms of priorities.”
In the greater Baton Rouge area, recent intense rainfall has already spurred change. Some residents have urged elected officials to limit or even halt new development, while other parishes have enacted building moratoriums and tightened rules on new construction.
“Livingston Parish with its landscape sits sort of in a bowl as it is,” parish President Layton Ricks said. “Development is always coming — you’re always going to progress. The water is going to go somewhere, and it’s going to go there a little quicker.”
To combat this problem, he said the parish has spent “somewhere in the neighborhood of $33 million cleaning waterways since the 2016 flood,” including tributaries like the Tickfaw River.
“I can do $30 million of work, but if your home still floods, as far as you’re concerned, I’ve done nothing," he said. “There's a lot we can do for small rain events, but for a huge flood, we’re going to have water. The key is to eliminate as much of it as we can.”
While measures like zoning could limit flooding by requiring developers to consider environmental impact, Colten said they’re often seen as a drain on the local economy.
“Property rights are dominant in this country in general,” he said. “The tendency of parish councils is to say, OK, let’s not inhibit developers. Development helps pay for schools, local roads, local government. But if your citizens keep getting smashed by floods, I think somebody has to have a serious conversation about changing those policies.”
‘We need to live with the river’
Baker, the drainage chairman, says he regularly hears from Livingston residents who tell him how anxious they get when it starts to rain.
“We see it all the time,” he said. “Our public comes to our drainage board meetings and share those kinds of thoughts on a regular basis.”
But preventing or reducing flooding while keeping people safe who travel on the river — like tubers — is complicated.
Robert Burns’ voice breaks when recounting how the Comite River left its banks, flowed over stacked-up sandbags and rushed into his house.
The river is already so altered that any new action will cause a reaction that could further destabilize the channel, Jacobsen said.
“We can’t oversimplify something and just convince ourselves, no matter how romantically we are attached to getting rid of flooding or restoring the environment to what it was 100 years ago,” Jacobsen said. “The reality is very complicated. Things have unintended consequences.”
Renewed dredging, which some propose, might or might not make a difference. A spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the agency “cannot speculate on the ecosystem impacts of dredging the Amite.”
Rietschier cautioned that if dredging were to happen at all, it must be done “very carefully.” It’s “always a balancing game with the river,” he said. He’s more interested in maintaining and monitoring the channel — smaller measures with meaningful effects.
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Even if a decision is made, the river’s upkeep is mired in the competing interests of municipalities that can only address their share of the channel. There is currently no overarching program to clear snags and debris or curb erosion on the river.
“It has to be a coordination, cooperation among everybody, and definitely it’s needed one overall agency in charge,” Rietschier said. “It cannot be done in bits and pieces. We’d like to be that agency — we have the capability to it, we just need the proper funding to do that.”
Ricks said local governments have been working to “look at the whole area as a region and not just what do I need to do for me.” However, a single organization maintaining the river might neutralize the political squabbles among parishes fighting for the same funding.
“My primary responsibility is the people in Livingston Parish,” he said. “But if you had some group like that overseeing it from a reasonable standpoint, I think with the dollars you could probably get somewhere.”
If the commission were granted that role, its jurisdiction would only apply to Louisiana, as a sizable stretch of the river runs through Mississippi.
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Mark Harrell, who serves on the Region 7 committee for the Louisiana Watershed Initiative, said the commission should stick to the main channel and leave oversight of tributaries to individual parishes.
“I think in the beginning they need to just work on the channel itself, show they have the right mindset and can move forward,” he said.
While financial backing has always been an obstacle, Rietschier said there are state and local dollars available. Cooperation — that will be harder to come by.
“There has to be consensus to maintain the river in the most stable condition possible,” he said. “That has to be accepted in order to move forward. We need to live with the river. And so we give some and we take some.”
Staff writer David Mitchell contributed to this report.