With distant storm clouds and high water stirring worries of flooding along Bayou Manchac, a Baton Rouge judge ordered Wednesday that portable dams not be installed along the waterway in Iberville and Ascension parishes.

It’s the second time in less than two years a judge has tried to block the dams amid a politically fraught dispute over flood water around Manchac and Spanish Lake that has tended to pit local parishes against one another.

East Baton Rouge Parish Judge William Morvant barred Iberville and Ascension from deploying what’s known as AquaDams along Manchac’s southern bank — although Iberville has been putting up the structures since Monday.

The water-filled, synthetic-fabric tubes are intended to prevent high water in the bayou from spilling into the Spanish Lake basin and threatening homes there. City-parish officials contend the dams would cause homes in East Baton Rouge to flood.

Manchac divides East Baton Rouge on the north from Iberville and Ascension parishes on the south.

Despite the court ruling, Iberville Parish President Mitch Ourso on Wednesday repeated an earlier vow not to take down the dams and said that he would go to jail if needed to keep them up.

He also disputed that Morvant, a state court judge limited to East Baton Rouge Parish, had any sway in Iberville.

“They have no jurisdiction to tell me that,” Ourso said. “They need to stay in their lane — stay in their lane.”

In July 2019, a federal judge in Baton Rouge with jurisdiction over a swath of Louisiana blocked Iberville officials from keeping the dams in place along Manchac’s south bank as Hurricane Barry threatened the region.

More than a year later, Iberville Parish prevailed in that suit on technical grounds, including that there was no federal legal dispute upon which the court could rule.

Heavy rains earlier this week in the Baton Rouge area have swollen local waterways and pushed up water in Manchac.

Forecasters have also warned that backwater flooding is slowing drainage in the Manchac area and another hard period of rain could cause more flooding.

Once connected to the Mississippi River, the bayou and the swamp basin through which Manchac threads have a hydrology that has been complicated by the years of human alternation. The area now receives runoff from fast-growing areas in all three parishes and dumps it into the Amite River.

Iberville officials say that runoff from southern East Baton Rouge, in particular from Bayou Fountain, winds up in Manchac.

In severe storms, that water, they contend, can force the bayou to overtop roads that normally serve as levees keeping Manchac’s water in its banks and out of the swamp basin.

High water overtopped the road in the August 2016 flood. Residents waited weeks for the slow-draining basin to drop low enough so they could rebuild.

City-parish officials say the AquaDams pose a flood risk to residents on the other side of the bayou and that the bayou is subject to backwater from the Amite River downstream of the city-parish's runoff.

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Morvant’s order came in response to an emergency petition that Baton Rouge city-parish officials filed earlier on Wednesday seeking to halt the dams’ installation.

Due to the type of order, known as a temporary restraining order, the ruling came without the typical advance notice to Iberville or Ascension parishes or a hearing.

City-parish officials told Morvant that they needed the emergency ruling because of the “imminent threat of harm to life and property created by deployment and inflation of the” dams.

The judge granted the emergency order at 2:50 p.m. Wednesday, about 40 minutes before the presidents of Ascension, Iberville and East Baton Rouge were expected to meet with Gov. John Bel Edwards about the dispute.

A frustrated Ourso said that he was in that meeting when one of his lawyers had passed him a note about Morvant’s ruling.

“It was my turn to talk, and I told the governor and I said, ‘I come over here to talk about the problem, and to my surprise, I just got Pearl-Harbored, as my attorney tells me, and I’m very disappointed in this.’”

Ourso said he believed Edwards was surprised by the court order but also told the governor and the other parish officials he wouldn’t be taking the dams down.

Ourso accused Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome of only considering her residents and not what can happen to those in Iberville and Ascension.

City-parish officials did not immediately respond to request for comment about Morvant’s ruling or the meeting with the governor.

Broome has said she wants to find a regional solution but that she also needs to protect city-parish residents and would go to court to do so.

It wasn't immediately clear how the ruling, which, as literally written, prevents the deployment of the dams, would affect structures that were already in place before the order had been issued.

Though also barred from installing the dams under Morvant’s order, Ascension Parish officials have not said they planned to install them on their section of Manchac along Alligator Bayou Road.

They were planning to bring in portable pumps to divert high water from the Bluff Swamp, which is part of the larger basin, into Manchac to protect nearby homes. The emergency order doesn't appear to bar use of the pumps.

Ourso said Ascension President Clint Cointment presented a plan for the pumps and it did not spark objections from Broome.

Ascension officials didn’t immediately offer a comment about the meeting or Morvant’s order Wednesday.

The judge ordered a hearing for 1:30 p.m. Monday on whether he should issue a more extensive order barring use of the dams.

Christopher Bannan, a lead forecaster for the National Weather Service office in Slidell, said that late afternoon estimates had rain coming probably Wednesday night, later than earlier expected.

But he said persistent winds and high tides were also expected to continue to hold up drainage in Manchac and some creeks in East Baton Rouge Parish.

The Advocate reporter Joe Gyan contributed to this story.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.