The St. Helena Parish Police Jury weighed in Tuesday against the revival of a proposed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam that would periodically flood tens of thousands of acres in St. Helena and East Feliciana parishes to reduce flooding in the lower Amite River Basin.
Just weeks after the St. Helena jurors appeared to have little awareness of the 1980s-era project's restoration, they voted without opposition for a resolution opposing the plan, at the urging of state Rep. Robby Carter, D-Greensburg.
The jury resolution, which will be sent to the Corps of Engineers and Louisiana congressmen, came on the same night as the first of two public input meetings that the federal agency planned for the project. Even in Denham Springs, miles to the south of the Police Jury meeting in Greensburg, landowners from St. Helena and East Feliciana showed up to register their objections.
“I just don’t want them to take my land. I’ve worked all my life to buy that piece of property, and I know if the government comes in and buys it, I won’t get near what it’s worth,” Ron McMorris, an Ethel resident who owns recreational land in the proposed flood area, said in an interview after the Corps meeting.
As proposed, the earthen Darlington dam would extend 3.6 miles across the Amite River Basin in East Feliciana and St. Helena parishes south of the community of Darlington, rise 86 feet high and hold back upstream runoff to protect downstream parishes like East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension.
Known as a "dry" dam, the structure wouldn't create a permanent lake but allow the Amite River to continue to pass except in times of severe storms. When the dam is closed, it would temporarily flood more than 26,000 acres of rural bottomland forests, farms and homes.
The dam and an idea to create a permanent lake were originally proposed in the 1980s after a severe flood in 1983, but the dry dam idea came up as the cost of the “wet” reservoir project became a concern. Controversy over the project and its cost eventually led the idea to lose steam in the late 1990s.
But the concept gained new momentum after the August 2016 flood inundated tens of thousands of homes in the lower Amite River Basin.
The Corps of Engineers said the latest iteration is cost-effective. The agency has recommended the $1.3 billion dam project and a related $1 billion home elevation and buyout program and structure flood-proofing effort as part of a three-year study authorized and funded by Congress in 2018 in reaction to the 2016 floods.
The Corps' latest analysis, which also looked at and rejected ideas for smaller dams and other flood protection proposals, estimates the larger dam concept would reduce Amite River levels at Denham Springs by 6 feet and at Port Vincent by 2.5 feet in a 100-year flood. That's a flood that has 1% chance of happening in any year.
But, the dam's 26,000-acre flood footprint would affect an estimated 700 landowners and require the buyout of about 365 structures. It would cover an area almost half the size of Baton Rouge's corporate limits but with just 4,275 people.
The vote from the St. Helena Police Jury, which also opposed the dam in the mid-1990s, followed an informational meeting Tuesday afternoon in Greensburg where about 30 people aired their concerns about a lack of advance notice about the plan. The Corps agreed to allow a third public input meeting in Greensburg early next year, parish officials said.
The Corps plans its second input meeting on the plan Wednesday night in Clinton.
During Tuesday's Police Jury meeting in Greensburg, Carter told jurors the project would threaten the parish's way of life, taking land from people who have held it for decades, hurt the timber and gravel industries in the area, and undermine the parish's tax base by taking so much land out of commerce.
The project would not have a permanent lake that might generate jobs but work more like the Bonnet Carré Spillway outside New Orleans, with little economic benefit, Carter asserted.
While Carter ticked through a variety of concerns over the proposed dam project, he also hammered a point several other residents have already made:
“So, there’s a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason is why should we in St. Helena be displaced from our homes so somebody who built in a low area can stay in theirs, and there’s no guarantee they’re not going to flood anyway, no matter what we do,” Carter said.
Carter, who represents St. Helena and East Feliciana parishes in the state House and hails from an extended family in St. Helena with a deep political and strong landowning history in the parish, promised to fight the proposed dam every way possible.
“I see this right now as the biggest threat to our way of life in St. Helena if they should put this dry reservoir in here,” he said to some applause.
Outgoing Juror Major Coleman urged residents to detail in their comments to the Corps how the project might cause economic costs for the parish. He said that information could affect the benefit-cost analysis of the proposal and its viability.
Juror Jule Charles Wascom, who indicated a few weeks ago that he didn’t think his district would oppose the dam, voted for the resolution opposing the dam Tuesday. He declined to comment afterward.
Though opposition is mounting in St. Helena, some Livingston Parish officials and other leaders have seen its flood reduction benefit and are behind the idea, including state Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs.
But, the $1.3 billion price tag for the dam has led to some concern whether the project could be funded any time soon. Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks has called the reservoir "one of the most important things" that can be done to reduce flooding in his parish.
"I think it's absolutely a great project," Ricks said in an interview late last month. "I don't know that we'll ever see it done because of the extraordinary amount of cost, but I do think it is definitely a very worthwhile project I would love to see done for this parish."
Hodges has said the dam could be done for much less, suggesting that the state Department of Transportation and Development gave her an estimate of less than $50 million.
In an interview Tuesday, two officials with the state Department of Transportation and Development said the $50 million figure was a rough, conceptual number that accounted only for engineering and design but not construction, land acquisition or other costs factored into the Corps' latest analysis. The figure was provided at Hodges' request and estimated without the benefit of necessary surveying or other advance work, the officials said.
In the Corps' report, real estate costs alone are expected to total more than $164 million to buy out and relocate properties for the dam, excluding certain kinds of added wetlands mitigation and easement costs.
Patrick Landry, DOTD deputy assistant secretary of public works, and Ed Knight, a DOTD state dam safety official, said they could not give a total estimate without a lot more work and haven't been directed or funded to do that kind of full analysis.
"There's just so many factors you'd have to know to be able to really hone in on an accurate cost estimate that we're just not, at this point, prepared to come up with," Landry said.
Back in Denham Springs, Corps officials on Tuesday night urged residents to fill out comment cards or speak with a court reporter but emphasized the project is in its early stages. Firmer cost figures and timeline and knowing which individual homeowners would be affected won’t likely be known for at least two more years, the officials said.
Darlington resident Michael Armstrong, whose family lives on more than 100 acres less than a mile from the proposed dam site, stayed around after the meeting in Denham Springs to speak with other St. Helena residents who planned to fight the proposed project.
He said he’s got family members buried in a Confederate cemetery nearby and isn’t planning to give up his land for the sake of others farther south in the basin.
But the tough talk was also leavened with a worry among a crowd of St. Helena and East Feliciana residents who traveled tor the meeting that they were fighting a battle that can’t be won.
“It’s the government,” McMorris said, shaking his head.