Recent floods rekindle interest in long delayed Comite River Diversion Canal _lowres

Engineers in charge of building the Comite River Diversion Canal have adopted an aggressive timetable, setting a completion date for three hurricane seasons from now.

Congress this year lined up funding for the $450 million flood-control project, pledging money toward a plan floated after a 1983 flood along the Amite and Comite rivers. Record floods in the same area two years ago brought renewed attention to the canal.

Project manager P.J. Varnado of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said at a meeting of the state Legislature's Comite River Diversion Task Force that construction will begin in late February or early March and be completed by the summer of 2021.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves said that while federal funding is assured, state leaders need to stay on top of the Corps to ensure there aren’t delays. He also cautioned that the canal isn’t the be-all, end-all solution. The capital region has grown significantly in the decades since the project was first suggested and the project will require further investment, the congressman said.

“We can’t prepare for 1983 … We need to be looking forward to 2030,” Graves said.

 When completed, the 12-mile canal would redirect high water from the Comite River toward the Mississippi River, passing between Baker and Zachary and crossing U.S. 61 north of Scotlandville.

Local officials wonder whether the area around the canal could be opened to recreation when the work is done.

The government has divided construction into 12 distinct projects, though Corps leaders have planned an open house with contractors next week to solicit suggestions. State Sen. Bodi White, a Republican from Central, said the state should consider increased penalties for work delays. He was concerned that a firm could win multiple bids and be unable to complete all the work in time.

State Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Denham Springs Republican, has asked that crews work on various stages of the project simultaneously.

Varnado said the Corps is looking at options for doing so and is designing the rest of the canal, but so far construction is focusing around U.S. 61. That work is scheduled to last until summer or fall of 2020.

The first step will be relocating a railroad bridge and various utility lines around U.S. 61.

The Corps as already performed half the design work on the La. 964 crossing and expects to bid out the designs for the La. 19 and La. 67 crossings before the end of the year, according to a presentation given Wednesday.

The biggest challenge isn't digging the channel itself, but relocating utility lines, Varnado said. Nine pipelines, three electric lines and seven communication lines surround U.S. 61 alone, according to the Corps’ presentation. The state and the Corps must coordinate with electric companies and the oil and gas industry to move electric lines and pipelines out of the path of the canal.

Once the diversion opens, East Baton Rouge Parish will maintain the right of way. At a minimum, that involves basic upkeep like cutting the grass, but there's talk of making the property a public asset.

"There's been a lot of discussion about recreational use. … There's plenty of acreage out there," said Fred Raiford, the city-parish's director of transportation and drainage.

White said he’s been approached by people wondering whether they can build camps or homes like the ones on the Amite River Diversion Canal in Livingston. He asked the Corps about the potential for the new channel.

“This is a delicate question,” project manager Bobby Duplantier said.

The Corps’ plan did not include consideration of recreational use around the canal, which can hold 8 to 10 feet of water, he said.

Hodges said it would be an “unwise … waste of resources” not to develop the site for visitors while the chance is available.

Amite River Basin Commission authorities testified they’ve purchased about 600 acres in the nearby McHugh Swamp to offset the environmental impact of the channel. However, that land will transfer to East Baton Rouge parish government once the diversion canal opens, they said.

Parish officials were guarded but optimistic.

“It’s a drainage project no matter how you look at it. … That’s what it’s intended for,” Raiford said.

He worried that recreational use could damage the flood control capability of the project but said East Baton Rouge would look for possible public uses.

Some land could be allowed to flood to aid in water retention, and those areas could serve canoers or kayakers. Hiking trails are another possibility. Raiford said it's just too early to tell; the city-parish is still waiting to see the final maps of the available land.

"These issues haven't been resolved yet," he said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.