DENHAM SPRINGS — With $3 million from Congress, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is taking a fresh, three-year look at flood control and risk mitigation ideas for the Amite River and its tributaries in a river basin containing more than a half-million people.

Several ideas getting a new look, corps officials said this past week, are old ones that didn't get off the drawing board when the Corps looked at them in previous studies.

The big federal flood protection analyses looked at the 3,450-square mile river basin that stretches from Lake Maurepas to southwestern Mississippi.

The studies and their past prescriptions have a long history for a river basin that is so important to the growing Baton Rouge region. These flood control ideas — as well as new ones from the public — could get fresh momentum with the new influx of federal cash for a new version of the Amite River and Tributaries study.

Congress first authorized the study in April 1967 when Louisiana Sens. Russell Long and Allen Ellender were still roaming the halls of the U.S. Capitol and were decades away from having federal courthouses or office buildings named after them.

These older Corps analyses, spurred by chronic flooding from the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s, helped spawn the long-delayed Comite River Diversion Canal that is now on a path to final construction, after the 2016 flood injected new momentum and construction money.

Last Wednesday, Travis Creel, a Corps regional technical specialist from the New Orleans District, listed for an audience at the Denham Springs public library several projects the new study is considering: the Darlington Reservoir, dredging of the lower Amite and Bayou Manchac, using Spanish Lake as a flood storage area with protections for homeowners and others, smaller detention areas along Manchac and in the upper Amite watershed, and even home elevations.

Other existing concepts, even outside the past Corps concepts, include the Baton Rouge Area Foundation's plan to revamp the LSU Lakes and also use them as a rainfall detention area.

"We'd like to see this list of alternatives expand," he added during a hearing designed to solicit public input on the study.

The gathering in Denham Springs was one of three the Corps held in the Baton Rouge region last week.

A handful of St. Helena and East Feliciana residents were among those in Denham Springs on Wednesday night. They were there, in part, to keep tabs on the Darlington Reservoir, one of the old flood control ideas ultimately ditched 25 years ago.

The reservoir plan had called for damming the Amite near Darlington and creating a water storage area covering thousands of acres to prevent flooding down stream.

Dredging? Levees? Reservoirs? What's the best way to control Baton Rouge-area rivers?

The reservoir plan spurred years of controversy in the 1980s and early 1990s that largely pitted some upriver landowners opposed to losing their property to a reservoir against downriver political leaders, including then-Gov. Edwin Edwards. Amid political opposition, cost concerns kept the project on the drawing board.

A taste of those old feelings re-emerged Wednesday as Ron McMorris, 72, of Ethel, voiced his worries about the apparent lack of public interest in the meeting and his opposition to the reservoir.

"All of my land will be underwater, OK?" he said.

McMorris said he owns land along the Amite in East Feliciana and doesn't think he should have to give it up "to save these fools down here that don't know how to build on high ground."   

Residents from the Grangeville area of St. Helena Parish who own land just downstream of the reservoir site said they see a future man-made lake as a recreational opportunity that could help their parish. They supported the reservoir idea and suggested only a handful of people in the past had opposed the plans for a reservoir.

"If people come to fish and boat and have fun, they're going to buy food. They're going to buy fuel. It'll help St. Helena Parish, I think," said Lois "Chee-Chee" Dunn, 75. 

The competing views of McMorris and Dunn are just a small taste of the kinds of questions the Corps of Engineers will have sort through as it reviews a range of projects culled from past studies and other information gathering.

Past disputes among competing interests have kept other ideas in the conceptual stage, too, such as using the Spanish Lake basin for flood storage or major clearing on Bayou Manchac, a state historic and scenic river. 

The Corps may also have to work through some public impatience for action and skepticism about the effectiveness of another round of studies for an already well-studied area. McMorris' concerns about the small number of residents at the meeting spun off into a discussion about whether the study would result in anything concrete.

"So at the end of the day, what is all of this going to solve? If I live for another 50 years, what would I see different," asked Ed Lagucki, 64, of Baton Rouge.

In a separate meeting in Galvez Thursday, Greg Doggette, 71, who flooded in 2016 in Denham Springs, asked why it would take another three years after the 2016 flood to reach conclusions for which the local people already know the answers.

"I'm a common man. I find it hard to understand why it takes six years to study something with no action," he said.

Yet, other residents came in with some new ideas not discussed by the Corps.

Tommy and Lisa Lyons, who live along the Amite in Galvez, suggested raising parts of La. 431 and La. 42 on piers near Port Vincent and Lake Villar. Tommy Lyons, 61, said the change would allow high water in the Amite to flow under the highways, like a floodway, and through that area's back swamps.

"I think that (the state highway department) could help a lot by just elevating roads," he said.  

Corps officials said they have done best they could to attract public attention and said that their decisions would be based on science. 

The Corps analysis will take into account sea level rise and the predicted effects once the Comite River diversion and separate waterway improvements are built in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Creel added the analysis will also consider the impact of locally funded proposals, like the Laurel Ridge Levee extension that Ascension Parish government has proposed building in the basin, and the effect of sand-and-gravel operations on sedimentation in the Amite River.

The final study could end up calling for a series of interrelated projects and also include recommendations for local ordinance changes or projects. 

Sarah Bradley, the Corps project manager, said her agency plans to have a tentative plan ready in the fall and a draft report and environmental impact statement by December. 

Corps officials hope to have a final report ready by the fall of 2021, setting the stage for possible construction funding from Congress. 


Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.