Leaders in Ascension, East Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes say they are renewing focus on breaking the political and hydrological logjam that has allowed chronic flooding in the Spanish Lake and Bluff Swamp areas and Bayou Manchac to go unresolved for years and spark repeated dust-ups among local officials.
Hopelessly dreamed of in past centuries as a permanent, navigable connection between the Mississippi River and Lake Maurepas, Manchac and the surrounding region have always had a complicated and illusive hydrology that promised more than has been achieved.
As a result, the region has become a sclerotic crossroads of drainage, receiving the combined runoff of fast-growing portions of the three parishes with insufficient arteries for all that water to escape.
This conflict has at times pitted parish against parish — each trying to protect its own — whether the current legal and public relations fights over Iberville's AquaDams near Alligator Bayou or previous arguments over the management of critical floodgates for Spanish Lake.
The solutions these officials are evaluating anew are familiar, costly and potentially difficult, past analyses have shown: pumps to drain the vast region to the Mississippi River and freeing Manchac, a waterway with a state historic and scenic designation, from long-standing blockages.
They are proposing three new pump stations along the river, stretching from somewhere near the University Club neighborhood in Baton Rouge and to the Darrow area in Ascension. They are also discussing plans to dredge out selected, significant choke points in Bayou Manchac, Ascension and other officials have said.
Combined, the options would create ways to send more water both east and west from the congested area, these officials said, where residents contend flooding has gotten worse with time. They are eying dollars from the $1.2 billion Louisiana Watershed Initiative to finance plans that, based on past reviews, could reach in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
In the meantime, local leaders plan to take advantage of a new legislatively imposed five-year extension of a scenic-designation exemption for Manchac.
Ascension officials planned to start this month on more limited clearing and de-snagging on their side of the bayou, removing fallen logs and other blockage.
Fred Raiford, East Baton Rouge transportation and drainage director, said the city-parish is preparing to ask the Metro Council to piggyback on Ascension's de-snagging contract for Baton Rouge's side of the bayou, at least from the Amite River west to Bayou Fountain.
"That's the area in which all three parishes are impacted," Raiford said. "'Cause Iberville Parish has an issue there. Ascension has it, and we do, too."
Raiford said he'd like to see that de-snagging continue farther west on Manchac where East Baton Rouge and Iberville share its waters.
'No actual solution'
A fix, whatever it is, can't come soon enough for 38-year-old Stefany Kling and her family.
For seven years, they have lived in their dream "little cottage in the woods" in Ascension's historic and bucolic Ridge Road community in the Bluff Swamp.
But the Klings have flooded twice already, once in August 2016 with a foot of water and again in mid-May with a few inches. The sharp, intense rains on May 17 and 18 inundated more than 1,360 homes in East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes. More flooded in Iberville.
"It's beautiful back here. It's amazing, and it's sad they've let it come to this. People shouldn't have to flood and rebuild over and over again and without a solution to it," Kling said, sitting on her screened-in front porch. "And since '16, they have come up with no actual solution."
Kling, who has flood insurance, said she has spent her summer wrangling with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, her insurer, the U.S. Small Business Administration and the parish to line up the money to come back.
Spanish Lake and Bluff Swamp have long had floodgates — Ascension was preparing for an expansion when the May flood hit — but they are relatively small for the large basin and also can't be used when Manchac is too high.
Due, in part, to the floodgate limitation forced by a swollen Manchac, water sat in Kling's home for three-and-a-half weeks after the May rain. She says the lingering water undermined her pier foundation, causing her floor and roof to buckle and sink.
While her insurer has agreed to pay for contents and wall and other damage, it refuses to pay for the foundation and roof damage, saying it predates the flood due to past saturation of her foundation soils with water. The insurer did acknowledge, however, that soil saturation from the most recent flood likely led to more settlement. But it still denied paying for that damage, a settlement says.
With two prior loans on the home, Kling plans to use her insurance proceeds and a third loan from SBA, or perhaps a bank, to demolish and install a manufactured home at least two feet higher than before.
Kling also plans to appeal her insurance settlement with FEMA and is talking to lawyer.
'Get the water out of here'
The new emphasis on pumps and clearing Manchac are the outgrowth of a private meeting the local leaders had a few weeks ago with U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge.
Iberville Parish President Mitch Ourso says the impetus came from his counterpart in neighboring Ascension, Clint Cointment.
They had spent days together setting up temporary inflatable dams, cutting drainage routes across Manchac Road and running portable pumps to lower water levels in the Spanish Lake and Bluff Swamp areas.
"'We got to do better than this,'" Ourso said Cointment told him.
The plan for a joint meeting soon followed, and Graves said the gathering had a recent template for success.
Ascension and Livingston officials reached a compromise over a controversial project along the Amite River, the $24 million Laurel Ridge Levee extension, that Livingston residents had worried would flood them.
The solution, also funded through the Louisiana Watershed Initiative, will be to build channels under La. 22 in southeastern Ascension that will allow the Amite River Basin to drain more quickly than it has in years and lessen the impact from the future levee extension.
Graves said the problem in the Manchac, Spanish Lake and Bluff Swamp areas is similar, "where folks are fighting where the water is going to go."
"And our thing is, 'Hey, look, we don't think the choices ought to be: do we flood EBR, or do we flood Ascension, or do we flood Iberville,'" Graves said. "It needs to be, 'how do we get the water out of here, how do we get it out of here and into the Gulf of Mexico.'"
Are pumps viable?
As detailed Mary Ann Sternberg's 2007 book on the history of Bayou Manchac, "Winding Through Time," generations of boosters had hoped to make the bayou a permanent navigable link between the Mississippi and Lake Maurepas and the Gulf, but the costs of reality doomed the dream.
Even early explorers and settlers found that Manchac, though its middle and lower portions could be passed by boats, was only fully connected to the Mississippi through its western end during spring floods. That end of the bayou was also regularly blocked with logs and debris and could be hardly a trickle, while, more modern study found, that the bayou is 15 feet above the river, Sternberg wrote.
Some of these same realities have made the prospect of pumps costly. Engineers have reported previously having to dig or widen extensive channels through swamps or past neighborhoods and then pump water uphill and over the river levee.
Two-and-a-half years ago, under then-Parish President Kenny Matassa, Ascension completed an evaluation of a variety of pump options in locations similar to some of those being proposed now and rejected them on a cost-benefit basis. The work had been done to hone Ascension's submissions for watershed initiative money.
Engineers with HNTB concluded most pump options aimed specifically at Manchac were too costly for the little flood reduction benefit provided for homes, in part, because the pumps would end up drawing on a virtually endless supply of water from the Amite River.
But Ourso, the Iberville president, said one thing that has given leaders some hope is a proposal to reuse existing river intake pipes already running over the levee at Entergy's former Willow Glen power plant south of St. Gabriel. The big pipes had been used to draw up river water for the demolished power plant, but idea is to reverse the flow and send water to the river.
If they can work, they present a potentially significant cost savings, Ourso said.
Local officials left the July meeting with Graves with a plan to come back in about a month with preliminary analysis of the latest pumping concepts.