DARLINGTON — Hunter Tynes says he's looking for a third donkey to run with the 35 head of cattle on his 100 acres off a lonely stretch of highway in western St. Helena Parish.

The donkeys fight off marauding nighttime coyotes that come after his cattle, which were nibbling in the rye grass pasture Saturday in front of the family home nestled between the Amite River and La. 448 southwest of Greensburg.

Tynes, wife Lisa and their upstream neighbors the Armstrongs are among the 4,275 people who would have to be bought out or have their land rights severely restricted and be permanently at risk of flooding if the proposed Darlington Dam were built to the south.

Their voices are among a small chorus of residents and public officials in St. Helena and East Feliciana parishes who have opposed the $1.3 billion dam since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unveiled its feasibility analysis late last year.

These residents say the project wouldn't just take or vastly limit the use of more than 26,000 acres of rolling bluffs and wooded bottom lands in the two parishes, but change a rural lifestyle now happily separate from the hustle, bustle and tight quarters of the urbanized parishes to the south, despite the occasional mischievous coyote.

"There isn't an amount of money that's worth what we live on. I mean you look out here and look at what you see," Karen Armstrong, 59, said sitting on the Tynes' front porch along with the Tyneses and her husband as the cows munched in the distance.

"This ain't no concrete jungle," Hunter Tynes added.

The Corps formally wrapped up its public comment period last month, and the St. Helena and East Feliciana police juries have weighed in with resolutions against the project. A promised St. Helena public hearing on the dam is still planned at 5 p.m Monday at St. Helena College and Career Academy auditorium, 14340 La. 37, in Greensburg. 

But the opponents face a daunting task in trying to fight the dam. The formal opposition in the two parishes doesn't necessarily result in a veto of a concept the Corps says would lower flood levels for heavily populated parts of East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes by 3 to 7 feet during a 100-year flood in the Amite River Basin.

A revision of an earlier concept discussed in the 1980s after the 1983 flood, the Darlington project is what the Corps calls a "dry dam." It would not permanently hold water and create a man-made reservoir but would be shut temporarily to hold back water expected from a 25-year flood. 

Less than four years removed from the August 2016 flood that inundated swaths of the region and displaced whole communities, the dam's latest rollout offers flood reduction potential for tens of thousands of homes and businesses. 

In the end, the calculus is a cold, hard, utilitarian one for the Corps to weigh: should the few be made to sacrifice a virtually irreplaceable way of life for the benefit of the many?

State Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, has been a champion of the dam idea, as the best bang for the buck, though she has said she thinks the state could do it far cheaper than what the Corps says.

Amid questions about how the dam would be funded and as local officials eye other projects for a large pot of post-'16 federal money, the parish governments in East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension — the project's biggest beneficiaries — have remained lukewarm at best. None has adopted resolutions weighing in on the dam, while some of the parishes' presidents or their staff have said they need more data first.

The office of Gov. John Bel Edwards, who once represented, as a legislator, areas that would lose land to the dam, said more input is needed on its huge positive and negative impacts.

"At this point, no decisions have been made, and everything is appropriately on the table until an extensive, technical assessment has been completed that could lead to action to benefit the state and the region," said Shauna Sanford, Edwards' communication director.

Meanwhile, residents and officials in St. Helena and East Feliciana said they see the dam as a long-term threat, undercutting timber, hunting and sand-and-gravel operations and also long-term growth prospects, without the recreational upside of a permanent dam reservoir. 

"I think the sentiment is that it doesn't bring value to the parish," Lyman Kyle Fleniken, a newly elected East Feliciana police juror, said about his resolution of opposition that jurors adopted earlier this month.

The Tyneses and Karen Armstrong's husband, Michael, offered little give in their opposition to the dam; the Tyneses have made "No Dam" road signs and "Damn the Dam" T-shirts. But Karen Armstrong suggested she could be open to the idea if the parishes to the south limit further growth in the lowest areas, instead of continuing to choose to build in harm's way, and if the dam offered more protection than what it would now.

"If you're only going to reduce flooding a little bit and these people are still going to continue to flood and these people are going to continue to build, who else? Who else is next (to lose their land in name of flood protection)," Armstrong asked.

Ricky Boyett, spokesman for the Corps in New Orleans, said the dam comment period has garnered 127 individual responses, with some for, some against and with some raising specific points about the dam or the geography in which it would be placed. 

He said the agency will take into consideration the opposition of the East Feliciana and St. Helena parish police juries and encourages input from others. 

"Public and stakeholder feedback is vitally important to the feasibility study process and communicated up the chain of command as we evaluate the path forward for reducing flood risk to Louisiana communities," he said.

St. James and Ascension parish officials lobbied agency officials for an extended version of the $760 million West Shore Levee project several years ago to protect against flooding from Lake Pontchartrain. Though the Corps didn't go with that proposal, the information submitted for that cause led to small ring levees and other flood protection fixes for St. James Parish. 

"I think it is a good example of the role comments play in determining the final course of action," Boyett said.

Land clearing and other early phases of the main levee project in St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes have been underway since the middle of last year, the Corps has said.

The Darlington project would require the outright purchase of 15,860 acres. The Tyneses' property just south of the confluence of the Amite River and Darling Creek and the Armstrongs' property nearby would be included.

All those acres would make way for a 12,600-acre primary flood pool and for a 3.6-mile-long earthen dam and concrete spillway.

Another 10,309 acres would have "flowage easements" placed on them, allowing the Corps to flood the property if necessary and greatly restrict use and new construction.

The latest Corps maps, with the areas targeted for flowage easements included, cover a far broader area than first shown in the Corps' feasibility reports, though they were displayed more recently in public meetings. The affected areas now reach the Mississippi state line. The flowage easements are needed to handle what the Corps of Engineers calls the "maximum probable flood" when the dam is closed.

Corps spokesman Matthew Roe couldn't give a precise storm probability, but he said the agency "erred on the conservative side by assuming an event greater than anything previously recorded in this area but still has a realistic probability of occurring."

Roe said the next phase of the project is expected to refine the study further.

Though a key decision is expected this spring, the final study won't be finished until late 2021 with three to five years of design to follow. Construction isn't yet funded, the Corps said.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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