Construction of the long-awaited Comite River Diversion Canal will begin in two or three weeks.

Sort of.

Authorities aren’t ready to dig the channel, but utility companies are preparing to relocate gas pipelines, electric lines and the like near U.S. 61 to clear the way for a highway bridge that will go above the canal, U.S. Army Corps engineer Durund Elzey said at a meeting Tuesday of the Legislature’s Comite diversion task force.

The meeting was the group's first since the federal government allocated $343 million to fully fund the project. The canal is designed to redirect water from the Comite between Baker and Zachary and deposit it in the Mississippi during a flood. It has been in discussions since the catastrophic flood of 1983.

Authorities were excited by the recent windfall.

U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy's issued a statement Tuesday saying his office "will continue to make sure things move smoothly and Louisiana families’ flood protection needs are met.”

Still, the fight for the Comite diversion is far from over.

Construction is scheduled to take three or four years, and officials must be diligent to ensure it will be finished on time, said Paul Sawyer, chief of staff for Congressman Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge.

“We are essentially at half time. … Having the money is very important, but getting the project actually completed is the most important thing,” Sawyer remarked.

Chairwoman Valerie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, repeatedly entreated representatives from the Corps and the state Department of Transportation to look for ways to speed up construction and work on different aspects of the canal simultaneously.

“The public is very skeptical (the canal will be completed),” the state representative said.

“Now is the time for progress. … That restores the public’s trust in us, the leaders, the government.”

For example, could crews relocate utilities and build the U.S. 61 bridge at the same time, she asked.

That’s not advisable from a construction stand-point, Elzey replied. He expects it will take until January to move the utilities, meaning bridge construction can begin in February or March.

Nevertheless, he vowed to look for ways to speed up the process. The Corps, DOTD and local congressional delegation are meeting Monday to hammer out some remaining details; they should be able to provide a more specific timetable afterward, Elzey said.

Part of the issue will be deciding which agency will handle which aspects of the construction, like if the state will take the lead on building all the bridges over the canal, DOTD Chief Engineer Chris Knotts said in an interview.

The state had always prepared to receive bits of funding here and there — to eat the elephant one bite at a time, Knotts told the task force. Receiving all the money at once was “a game changer,” he said. For example, the government doesn’t even own all the land it needs to build the canal because no one wanted to spend money on land they weren’t sure would be needed.

The government probably owns about 35 to 40 percent of the right of way, Amite River Basin Commission Executive Director Dietmar Rietschier has estimated.

Because the canal will run through wetlands, the Basin Commission must also purchase other wetlands for restoration and preservation to offset the environmental impact of the new canal.

Though Hodges floated the idea of building the canal from both ends simultaneously, the diversion was originally designed to be built from west to east. Under that plan, the Basin Commission has bought enough mitigation land in the McHugh Swamp to build the canal as far as Bayou Baton Rouge, and possibly to Cypress Bayou, Knotts said. It’s difficult to know for sure right now, because mitigation land is worth varying amounts depending on factors like how much work is required to improve it.

However, Knotts doesn’t expect mitigation acquisition to slow the project down. The biggest factor will just be the time it takes to relocate utilities, build four bridges, dig the canal and install the various control structures and pumping stations, he said.

With funding in hand for the Comite diversion, Sawyer urged the state legislators not to let up on flood control projects.

“We are about to achieve the flood protection we needed in 1983. … We need 2018 protection,” he said.

It’s time to come up with more solutions and maybe dust off some old proposals like projects that would improve the drainage of Bayou Manchac or the creation of the Darlington Reservoir on the East Feliciana-St. Helena parish line, Sawyer said.

French Settlement Emergency Manager Lawrence Callender pointed out that the Amite is in the same shape as in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the federal government dredged the river, but it hasn’t kept up maintenance in the intervening decades.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said authorities must look across the basin, including areas like East Feliciana and St. Helena where some areas have begun to see flooding for the first time.

Yet, with all the work ahead, the task force did take some time to appreciate full funding for the Comite diversion. It took a “monumental” amount of time and effort to get this far, Hodges said, but the future looks brighter with money in hand.

“I believe we are going to get it done,” she said.


Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.