WALKER — Several hundred residents filled the Walker Freshman High School Auditorium on Aug. 12, for a three-hour meeting on drainage issues and flooding in the city.
The meeting was moved from the City Hall meeting room to the nearby school to accommodate the crowd. Lengthy presentations from city and other officials and a long procession of complainants highlighted the meeting. The majority of the complaints about flooding came from residents of Pendarvis Lane and the nearby Pleasant Ridge Subdivision.
U.S. Rep. Garrett Graves offered hope that federal dollars will eventually help relieve flooding problems in Livingston and adjacent parishes. Graves said long-existing problems with excess surface water was a central focus in the August 2016 flood.
“In 2016, we got as much water in two days as many areas in the country get in a whole year. We were not prepared for that disaster, but we learned some lessons,” Graves said. In response to that flood, he said the federal government had allocated $53 million to Livingston Parish to help in recovery.
Graves said the federal government has allocated an additional $68 million for remediation of flood damages. Graves said a major project that promises to help relieve flooding for a wide area, the Comite-Amite River Project, has still not been constructed.
“This project dates back to the 1970s and it has never been built," he said. "The federal government is set to allocate nearly $400 million to this project that will take water west to the Mississippi River and allow better drainage on the Amite River, which is the river that drains your area."
Graves said that over the past several years, Louisiana has been experiencing more heavy rain events than ever before but that drainage plans are still based on projects that were envisioned in the 1970s and 1980s.
"It’s time for Louisiana to be given the resources to plan for potential flooding problems of the 2020s, 2030s and 2040s," he said.
Discussing concerns that construction of Interstate 12 through Livingston Parish has been a contributing factor in flooding in Walker and other communities, Graves said, “We all want levees, but nobody called for a levee in the middle of an interstate,” he said. His remarks drew prolonged applause from the audience. Graves said that because of lessons learned about the role the interstate might have played in the flooding of 2016, federal planners have changed interstate construction regulations.
He also said Congress was examining flood insurance programs and every effort will be made to create flood programs that can accommodate Louisiana residents.
“It is unfair to keep penalizing Louisiana for the water that comes from almost three-fourths of the nation," Graves said. "All of that water is affecting our state in many ways, and it also includes the terrible loss of land through coastal erosion. We cannot rest until we get some solutions."
Climatologist Jay Grimes told the audience, “you are getting more rainfall in greater volume than ever before, and you have to be prepared for times when this trend is going to continue. But I have to remind you, progress comes at a cost. The more your city and others like it grow, the greater your problems are going to be when it comes to flooding.
"Every time you turn a forest into a pasture, you are creating more problems with drainage. When you turn that pasture into a parking lot or a subdivision, you are making the problem even more dangerous. This change of land usage is creating situations that nature never intended, and ultimately someone has to pay the price.”
The program opened with a lengthy description of the drainage situation in Walker by Jamie Etheridge, the city’s chief of staff. He concentrated on an exploration of the watersheds that affect residents of Walker. He said watersheds are land areas that are drained by streams in a specific area. The watersheds that drain Walker are Dumplin Creek, Taylor Creek, Hornsby Creek and the two principal watersheds, the West and Middle Colyell creeks.
Etheridge said it is the responsibility of tWalker, the state Department of Transportation and Development, the parish’s Gravity Drainage District 5 and the residents to keep all culverts, ditches and the streams that drain the city clear of debris and open to the flow of water.
He said Walker has about 80 miles of drainage ditches and that over the past several years the city and the drainage district have worked to keep those systems clear. Over the same period of time, the city has replaced more than 300 culverts.
Pointing to a map, Etheridge noted that of the seven gravity drainage districts in Livingston Parish, the largest two districts, both in the eastern area of the parish, are unfunded and this has an effect on drainage in Walker. He said most of the water that is designed to flow out of Walker flows into the unfunded gravity drainage districts.
Etheridge said part of the problem with flooding in Walker can be traced to clogged drainage systems under Interstate 12. He said the state is working on solutions to the problem, and the city has become vigilant when rain starts to fall. “We have our crews working long hours trying to make every effort to see that all the drainage systems are clear of debris and that the water is flowing where it is supposed to flow."
The city, he said, is working with Forte & Tablada to work out a master plan for drainage in the city. “We want to identify where the problem areas are, where chokepoints have developed and where we need to improve our drainage patterns. Once we have that data, we should be able to better address the problems that we face,” he said.
Mark Harrell, director of the Livingston Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the $53 million given to the parish after the flood of 2016 was a “one-time shot” to help clear clogged waterways. He said the parish was also given $3.5 million to help clear the Colyell and Amite River drainage systems. He said the parish is constantly working to keep drainage systems clear, but funds are necessary to assure the work can be continued. He said drainage projects are difficult to complete because of the many permits and regulations.
“For example, the West Colyell Project was designed more than eight years ago, but environmental and other issues delayed the project at the start by a whole year. ... I can’t spend one penny on a project to drain one area if it will put water on another area. ”