A long-stalled project to dredge the New River Canal through much of Gonzales is expected to start in "weeks," officials said.

The announcement came after a key Ascension Parish drainage panel accepted as the low bidder a Baton Rouge company that had the low bid for similar work nearly a year ago until litigation derailed that offer.

New River is an important drainage path through the heart of Ascension Parish's largest city, feeding runoff from Gonzales and parts of southern Prairieville toward the Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station.

The work is expected to improve water flow through New River and expand the reach of the pumping system into Grand Goudine Bayou by removing sediment from the bottom of New River, altering its side slopes and redesigning a low-water dam just east of Airline Highway along Weber City Road.

That dam and another farther west at Smith Bayou — which in-house parish drainage workers have already modified on an emergency basis this summer along with doing other dredging work — have been blamed by past parish officials for impeding the effectiveness of the Marvin Braud pumps.

The dams, also known as weirs, hold up water levels in New River for primarily aesthetic purposes but allow sediment to build up behind them and inhibit the reach of the Marvin Braud pumps, those officials have said.

Estimated at $5 million, the low bidder, Bridging the Gap LLC, came in at nearly $3.3 million, $1.7 million under the parish budget estimate and $1.5 million under the only other bidder, Boone Services LLC, parish documents show.

Both companies were previous bidders in an earlier iteration of the dredging project and are parties in the litigation over those older bids. For the earlier bid, Bridging the Gap was called Bridging the Gap Solution LLC.

The owners of Bridging the Gap include lawyer James Moore and former LSU basketball star Collis Temple III, the son of Collis Temple Jr., who helped desegregate LSU basketball as its first black player in 1971.

Discussed for at least a decade and a half, a program to do the New River dredging and remove the dams was proposed anew and designed under the administration of former Parish President Kenny Matassa.

But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not permit it until May 2019, near the end of that administration.

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The project continued under new President Clint Cointment and an East Ascension drainage panel with five new members who also took office with the president in January 2020.

The dredging project was also altered to preserve but modify the weirs and then became embroiled in the legal fight over the earlier round of bids from mid-2020.

In mid-November, losing bidder Boone Services LLC sued parish government, Cointment and the then-low bidder, Bridging the Gap Solutions LLC, because of alleged technical bid failures by the low bidder. Before the suit, Boone had earlier filed a protest with parish government of any bid award.

Finding Boone had a likelihood of winning the suit, Judge Tess Stromberg of the 23rd Judicial District Court agreed in late December to halt award of the bid and later rejected Bridging the Gap's attempt at a new trial.

While Bridging the Gap appealed to the Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, the Cointment administration broke off a piece of that original project, did it in-house this summer and then rebid the rest.

The new low bid raised enough questions for members of the East Ascension drainage board last week that at least one council member, Corey Orgeron, wanted assurances from the administration that the litigation was ended with the new bid. Another, Joel Robert, called for close scrutiny of any future change orders.

While the board attorney wasn't present for a virtual meeting when the drainage panel voted Sept. 20, Parish President Clint Cointment said he has been given legal advice that when the parish did a portion of the earlier project in house, it made the lawsuit moot.

"So, I mean they could stay in court, but, to my knowledge, there's no longer any litigation because that has become null and void," Cointment said.

Chase Melancon, the drainage panel's vice chairman, said change orders remain the responsibility of the drainage board to review and approve.

"And I mean, with the change orders, that's up to us. We can deny change orders," Melancon said.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.