The Comite River Diversion Canal, a long-awaited flood-control channel for the Baton Rouge area, is expected to take a year longer than anticipated to build and won't be finished until December 2022, federal officials say.

The 12-mile-long channel will divert water from the Comite River and other smaller waterways into the Mississippi River.

Discussed since the 1960s and studied intensely since the 1980s, the channel gained new relevance, political momentum and long-needed federal and state funding after the 2016 floods devastated tens of thousands of homes in the Baton Rouge region.

While the canal route beginning between Baker and Zachary is largely a downhill shot due west to the Mississippi, the path cuts through highways, railroads, swamps, pipelines and other obstructions that have complicated its design, cost and construction for years.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials' statement this month confirms the concerns some officials had aired at the end of 2020 about the project's progress.

Last fall, Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, had warned Corps of Engineers officials that he was worried about slippage in the construction timeline and, by mid-November, agency and state highway officials had told a legislative task force that they were trying to determine then if they could hold the original schedule.

So far, the Corps of Engineers has issued four of the 18 different clearing or construction contracts since the $343 million construction phase started in early 2020, corps officials said. 

In early February, the Corps of Engineers awarded its latest contract, a nearly $9.5 million agreement with Coastal Contractors Inc., to build a bridge at McHugh Road on the eastern end of the channel, agency officials said.

The state Department of Transportation and Development, one of the non-federal sponsors of the project, has also issued contracts to design and build bridges and other improvements at La. 67 and La. 19 and has plans to open bids for traditional bridge construction job at La. 964 in May, agency officials said.  

Work on a new two-lane $10 million to $11 million La. 67 bridge is expected to start in May or June. Design is nearly complete, DOTD officials said.

One of the most visible phases underway is on U.S. 61 near Barnett Road. Under a $55 million Corps of Engineers contract awarded in May, James Construction Group is building new bridges for U.S. 61 and the Kansas City Southern Railroad line and digging out the section of canal that will run under the new bridges.

Traffic and the rail line have been rerouted around the construction sites.

Nick Sims, assistant deputy district engineer for the Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, said the process of buying the remaining land for the canal has gone slower than expected and has, in part, been delayed by a hydrological study of the lowland area near the western end of the channel and the Brooks Lake area.

He said land acquisition, which DOTD is handling, isn't expected to be finished until between June and October, so the final batch of construction contracts are not expected to be awarded until the end of 2021.

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Construction on those final phases won't be done until the end of 2022, Sims said.

DOTD says it can have all the land purchased by June. An agency spokesman said last week that DOTD had bought 57 of the 82 parcels needed so far. That's seven more than had been purchased 3½ months ago, according to mid-November report to a legislative task force.

In an effort to compress the construction timeframe and meet that late 2021 deadline that Corps officials had considered "aggressive," the agency decided to build the channel in phases but also have various stages of design, land acquisition, clearing and construction run in parallel to one another, instead of taking one step at a time. 

The timing of one of those phases, however, can affect others.

Monday, Graves questioned whether hydrological study was a significant source of delay but believed the standard land purchase process was moving too slowly.

Though DOTD has that role, Graves suggested the Corps has land-acquisition procedures that could be used.

"If you have project like this, where you have a million people or more that are going to end up suffering the consequences of delays, then, you know, like, you've got go ahead and use these tools that were given," Graves said.

He said the real battles on the project have been won, settling agreements on wetlands mitigation and securing the hundreds of millions dollars to get it built.

"We did that, damn it, so the rest of this stuff should be gravy. This should be downhill," Graves said.   

Corps officials said they are studying the Brooks Lake area to see how water diverted through the channel will affect bayous and lands west of the Lilly Bayou Control Structure and so determine how the agency will have to account for all the flood water that will be routed through that area to the Mississippi.

Finished in 2011, the Lilly Bayou Control Structure was the first major piece of the diversion canal that was finished.

Located just west of U.S. 61, concrete structure will allow water flowing down the future diversion channel to slow down before a 45-foot drop in the natural topography to the bottomlands and bayous closest to the river.

Sims explained that, depending on what the hydrological study finds, the Corps may choose to dig a channel to route the water leaving the control structure and headed to the river. He said the study is expected to wrap up in a couple of months.

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