When it comes to avoiding a repeat of the 2016's record-breaking deluge and disaster, many communities are still floating ideas.
Few projects are under way while state and local officials assess the best way forward. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month dedicated $14 million toward the Comite River Diversion Canal, though the amount of money put up might be called a literal drop in the bucket. A state study of the Amite River basin is due at the end of the year. A joint study for Ascension and East Baton Rouge parishes could land any time.
Should crews dredge the Amite and the Comite, a major tributary? Does Denham Springs need a levee? How about a massive reservoir near Darlington on the East Feliciana-St. Helena parish line, as was discussed and dismissed years ago?
“I would never call anything a moonshot,” said Fred Raiford, East Baton Rouge Parish's transportation and director, willing to consider anew the long-forgotten Darlington Reservoir project.
Each planner upstream must keep in mind the impact of their work downstream.
"At some point in time, I'm sure we will have to sit down at the table and compare all these apples and oranges and make sure they fit in the same basket, so to speak," said Dietmar Rietschier, executive director of the Amite River Basin Commission.
Thunderstorms dumped as much as 31 inches of rain on parts of the Baton Rouge area in August 2016. The Amite and Comite rivers flood often, but the waters two years ago reached levels that many had not seen.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is putting $14 million toward building the long-planned Comite River Diversion Canal, the agency…
State Department of Transportation and Development spokeswoman Brandie Richardson said the state doesn't expect results of an Amite River Basin study until the end of year, but Raiford says the first phase of a joint East Baton Rouge-Ascension drainage study could be concluded soon. In Livingston, emergency officials already have plans to rebuild a weir that isn't working as initially intended.
Livingston Parish Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Director Mark Harrell said he would like the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give the parish permission to use hazard mitigation money awarded after the flood to pay for weir work totaling $9 million. Ascension and East Baton Rouge parishes should pay 25 percent each, he said, but the two parishes haven't committed.
The weir, a water control structure, is supposed to divert 20 percent of the Amite River’s flow down a diversion canal that connects with the Blind River, which in turn carries water to Lake Maurepas. Instead, the sinking weir pushes 80 percent of water into the canal and just 20 percent into the main river, which has made silting worse from the reduced flow of water, Harrell said.
Silting along the Amite River is a major concern for people like Lawrence Callender, emergency manager for the village of French Settlement in southern Livingston Parish. Silting makes floods in his area worse, he said.
“French Settlement is the canary in the mine, and the canary is dead,” Callender said.
But dredging the length of the Amite River to keep it flowing isn’t likely, Harrell said.
“At this point in time, I don’t know where we would get that much funding,” Harrell said. “And I don’t think the whole river needs to be dredged. I think there are isolated locations that could benefit from some of it. But until it’s all surveyed, there is no way to make a good, educated decision.”
State legislators have been acting to allow dredging of waterways that had previously enjoyed protection under the state’s scenic rivers program, including the Blind, Comite and Tickfaw.
Sen. Bodi White, a Republican from Central, succeeded at the state Legislature to allow the dredging of the Comite River, a major tributary of the Amite and one of the major contributors to the 2016 flood. White’s bill received universal support in the statehouse, and the state senator said that while his main focus is building the Comite River Diversion Canal, he believes that clearing local waterways will go a long way toward flood mitigation.
State authorities, meanwhile, said that while they now have the authority to dredge some scenic rivers, they have not yet received funding to do so.
Dredging sets off alarms for environmentalists worried about erosion and the degradation of fisheries.
Julie Rosenzweig, director of the state Sierra Club, said the state needs to be ready to mediate any potential conflicts, because local authorities focused on keeping their constituents dry might create problems downstream.
“They’re just trying to move it out of their parish,” she said.
John Lopez, coastal sustainability program manager for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, said he isn’t opposed to any specific dredging but remarked that he’s concerned politicians may be trying to score political points with flood victims, and any particular dredging plan needs to be thoroughly vetted.
“There might be unintended consequences. … You might be creating more problems for people downstream,” he said.
The Comite River Diversion Canal project, projected to cost anywhere from $200 million to $350 million, would move water from the Comite River to the Mississippi River along a canal running from east to west between Baker and Zachary. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pledged in June to give $14 million for utility relocation. Rietschier said the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has agreed to complement that funding with an additional $15 million, and the Amite River Basin Commission is advancing $10 million.
Rietschier said the funding will be used to bore 80 feet below the ground to do utility relocations beneath the proposed canal and to build two bridges along U.S Highway 61.
“We’re very, very close to starting construction,” Rietschier said.
Additionally, Gov. John Bel Edwards said in April the diversion canal would be built “much sooner than many people thought possible” with either the recent allocation of $1.2 billion from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
At the mouth of the Amite River, where the waterway empties into Lake Maurepas, Livingston officials could begin work as soon as this fall to address coastal erosion, according to Harrell.
The parish received about half of the $2 million necessary to complete the project that involves dredging the final 3,000 feet of the river and using that dirt to rebuild a barrier island, Harrell said. He expects to get the rest of the money, an allotment related to the BP oil spill, within the next few months.
“If we don’t do something, it’s just going to wash and wash and wash, and our coastline is going to get closer and closer and closer to our homes,” Harrell said.
Kyle Gautreau, director of communications for Ascension Parish Government, said the parish has no projects currently working on the Amite River.
He said the parish is working on improving its pumping stations, increasing capacity and opening up Muddy Creek and Bayou Conway/Panama Canal and permitting the construction of a floodgate at Frog/Fish Bayou.
“Improvements to the Amite River, most especially increased capacity as Bayou Manchac drains into the Amite River, would be of great regional benefit. We remain in frequent dialogue with our neighbors on Amite River projects,” Gautreau said in a statement.