Over a lunch of fish and grits Thursday, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome addressed three of Baton Rouge's professional engineering organizations. She spoke of efforts to fill potholes and continue longstanding work on improving the parish's sewer system.
But what about stormwater drainage, an engineer asked.
The mayor was vague, saying the city-parish needs a plan but committing to no specific course of action. Another engineer pressed her for details but Broome just spoke of a need to collaborate with other parishes.
The night before, members of the Metro Council bubbled with frustration over drainage issues, saying the parish's bayous and creeks are still choked with debris — up to and including entire refrigerators littering the parish's waterways that are blocking the flow.
Baton Rouge has infrastructure plans to improve roads and sewers but not drainage. Problems are addressed reactively, if they're addressed at all.
With the August flood still fresh in mind and the start of hurricane season looming, officials are wondering if the city-parish will take meaningful steps to overhaul the system to keep pace with the growing population.
Efforts could extend in several directions.
Broome has spoken of her desire to work with other parishes that are looking at large regional projects, such as dredging Bayou Manchac. At a more local level, Frank Duke, the city-parish's planning director, has pointed out that East Baton Rouge contains 20 separate watersheds, each with its own peculiarities and needs.
Council members want the public works employees to at least maintain the existing waterways. In March, Broome's transition team wrote that there are thousands of open drainage complaints that have yet to be addressed.
The non-profit Center for Planning Excellence has emphasized that communities need to look at the types of construction they allow in floodplains. They didn't go so far as to call for a moratorium on slab on grade buildings but did point out that houses on piers, for example, allow water to flow with less obstruction and displacement.
It will take money if the city-parish wants to build new canals, dredge existing waterways or hire more maintenance staff. Former mayor Kip Holden tried twice to pass a tax that would have funded some drainage work. However, the half-cent sales tax and 9.9-mill property tax bundled drainage, a new prison, riverfront attractions and other projects in one proposal, and voters shot it down in 2008 and again a year later.
Kirk Lowery, one of the engineers who asked Broome about her drainage plans, said a tax may have passed under Holden if a drainage proposal had been put to a vote separately from all the other issues.
In an interview, he advocated for taking a closer look at storm water, saying the city-parish needs to consider how recent developments have changed how water runoff moves around the parish.
"The whole parish — let's evaluate it. What improvements need to be made?" he said.
At the moment, there is no specific revenue set aside to pay for drainage improvements, assistant chief administrative officer Rowdy Gaudet wrote in an email to The Advocate.
"There are presently no plans to use existing funding sources differently, and currently no bond issue in the works," he wrote.
Broome told the engineering groups she is waiting to see what funding the federal government might offer. Louisiana stands to receive money to perform flood prevention projects, also known as mitigation. The funding comes as a result of the August storm, but state officials have said it may take at least a year from the date of the flood for the money to become available.
The mayor said she is working with other parishes to identify projects to focus on. The Advocate attempted to sit in on one of those meetings earlier this year but was turned away by Broome.
In February, the parish presidents of East Baton Rouge, Ascension, Livingston, Iberville and St. James sent a joint letter to the Army Corps of Engineers calling for the completion of the Comite River Diversion Canal and the West Shore Levee Project. However, because both of those are already Corps projects, Louisiana officials would have to break the existing contracts if they wanted to seek other federal funding, such as through mitigation money.
The parish presidents also called for the clearing and dredging of Bayou Manchac. However, that project has its own complications, said Ascension Parish chief of staff Kyle Gautreau. Manchac is a state-designated scenic waterway, which means there are restrictions on any work that could alter it.
Yet the project would be worthwhile, Gautreau said. Ascension has built flood gates on Manchac which allows overflow to drain into the Spanish Lake area, but they don't work properly if the bayou fills with sediment.
"The flood gates are essentially stymied if the bayou is not capable of emptying itself," he said.
Gautreau said he isn't sure how much it would cost to dredge Manchac.
Mark Harrell, director of emergency preparedness for Livingston Parish, said regional authorities are still waiting to see what kind of mitigation funding they can expect and declined to identify any specific projects he'd like to pursue. Money comes from the federal government, but it's up to the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to decide how it will be distributed.
Harrell said the local parishes haven't always worked together to address common goals, but that seems to have changed.
"I'm excited about the fact that Ascension and East Baton Rouge are open to doing regional projects," he said.
At the same time, Gautreau is mindful of the failure to build the Comite River Diversion Canal. Residents in the three parish voted to pay a local tax for the canal in 2000, yet the canal has not been dug. Officials have generally blamed the Corps for not prioritizing the project and committing the financial resources needed to get it built.
"You can't be horribly optimistic given the funding ... of Comite," Gautreau said of federal partnerships.
While regional infrastructure projects should be part of a comprehensive approach to drainage, authorities also need to look at possibilities on a smaller scale, said Haley Blakeman, Director of Implementation at the Center for Planning Excellence.
It's not enough to pipe water out of an area as quickly as possible, Blakeman said. In August, for example, water that got funneled toward Lake Maurepas bottlenecked and backed up, causing the backwater flooding that soaked so many homes.
Rather, communities need to look at ways to slow water down and allow it to seep into the ground. Individuals can plant gardens to soak up rainwater, subdivisions can build retention ponds and parishes can leave undeveloped fields that are used as parks most of the year to serve as temporary lakes during periods of high water.
Councilman Dwight Hudson pointed out that while the city-parish has floodplain requirements for new developments, no one checks up on private retention ponds, pipes and other water control measures.
"The neighborhoods don't do a good job maintaining it," he said in the last Metro Council meeting.
It's an issue worth studying, concurred Fred Raiford, the city-parish's director of transportation and drainage.
Raiford said the city-parish at the moment is still trying to record the erosion, debris build-up and other damage the August flood caused to the drainage system so repairs can be made and reimbursement sought from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. East Baton Rouge has gotten some money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service but has yet to receive any money from FEMA for drainage fixes, Raiford said.
Councilman Trae Welch, who asked that the the council discuss drainage at its last meeting, said there are people in his district that have flooded three and four times since August.
"(The city-parish) kind of stopped doing the maintenance. ... We've got a good drainage system, if it was cleaned out," he said in an interview.
One problem, according to Broome's transition team, is that maintenance workers are paid poorly, causing "inadequate staffing levels (that) actually limit the ability to deploy crews and perform work."
"This issue is compounded due to the extremely low wage scale. This creates a situation of continuous turnover and unplanned position vacancies, which requires constant training, retraining, and additional supervisory efforts," the transition team wrote.
Raiford and Duke, the planning director, both cautioned that there will always be a potential for rain-created flash floods, no matter what changes are made to the drainage system. And even a big project like the Comite Diversion is unlikely to change an area's base flood elevation, which is used for insurance purposes, Duke continued.
Nevertheless, "there's no doubt that we need drainage improvements," he said.
Duke said he'd leave it up to the politicians to decide how exactly that will be accomplished and funded. He did note that when he worked in Florida, communities there paid into regional programs and projects specific to individual watersheds.
A parish-wide drainage plan probably won't work in East Baton Rouge, he concluded. Duke has advocated for watershed-specific plans, but coming up with 20 studies is a daunting task.
"This is not an easy issue. I think everybody wants it to be an easy issue but it's not," he said.
"Should we have a path forward? No doubt. But the challenge is -- how do you pay for it? ... This is not going to be a cheap or inexpensive process. Nor will it be quick."