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Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Aerial of the Comite Diversion Canal looking west, with the Mississippi River at top.

Members of Louisiana's congressional delegation announced full funding for the Comite River Diversion Canal on Thursday, calling it a "a major win" for communities that suffered through devastating floods in 1983 and 2016.

From a new round of supplemental funding, Louisiana received $1.2 billion for flood mitigation, including the federal government's $343 million share of the Comite diversion. Another $255 million will go toward clearing, dredging and widening East Baton Rouge Parish waterways.

The diversion canal will run westward from the Comite River just south of Plank Road Park and slice between Baker and Zachary. Once the water flows past U.S. 61 it will run along Lilly and Cooper bayous and into the Mississippi River. 

“This is not merely a hope and a prayer. The logjam has been completely broken, and we are getting the best flood protection we’ve ever had," U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, wrote in a statement. "Comite will be completed in three-to-four years, and the flood protection we deserved in 1983 and again in 2016 will soon arrive throughout the Capital Region and the state." 

Dietmar Rietschier, the head of the Amite River Basin Commission, was not as optimistic. He said the project could be done in four years if multiple crews worked on different pieces simultaneously. The government currently owns about 35 percent to 40 percent of the land in the canal's right of way.

Because the canal will run through swamps, authorities must also purchase and protect offsetting wetlands to mitigate the impact to the environment. Deciding where to buy mitigation land became a nightmare several years ago when authorities tried to build an early component of the canal but locked horns over how to handle mitigation.

Land is worth varying amounts of credit based on multiple factors, but Rietschier estimates that officials will have to buy approximately 1,500 more acres to satisfy environmental requirements.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has studied and planned the Comite River Diversion Canal for decades, but a chronic lack of funding has prevented any major construction. Some work has occurred, but no waterways are currently being drained.

The federal funding announced Thursday should cover what's left of the diversion project's $450 million price tag.

The Corps has committed to spending an additional $343 million for the canal, the agency announced Thursday, a month after pledging to spend $14 million on the Comite as part of its regular annual operating budget. Those federal funds come on top of money the state and the Amite River Basin Commission, which collects a regional tax, have already raised or committed to the project.

In the past, Louisiana would receive dribs and drabs toward the project, but not enough to fund a whole portion, said Shawn Wilson, the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Now, with full funding, work can begin in earnest.

"If this is not finished in four years then something is not happening well," Wilson said.

Louisiana officials have lobbied the federal government for years over funding for the canal, an effort that gained renewed urgency after record-breaking rains in 2016 triggered devastating flooding along the Comite River in the Baton Rouge region. Severe floods also hit the area in 1983, and there have been less-severe floods along the Amite and Comite for decades.

Central Councilman Wayne Messina was overjoyed to hear the funding has finally come through. In addition to providing flood protection, he expects the diversion will save residents on their insurance. When his own home was built in 1977, it conformed to the standards of the day, standing at an elevation of 52 feet.

However, regulations have changed, and the base flood elevation of his lot now is 52.8 feet, meaning he has higher flood insurance premiums. Because the Comite diversion will improve flood control, Messina expects it will lower the base flood elevation by 2 feet in his area. That will put his house above the minimum elevation and save him about 75 percent on his insurance.

When told Thursday the funding had come through Thursday, it was nearly too good to be true.

"Golly, I hope (the funding has been approved). That's great," he said, laughing.

Several other south Louisiana projects also received money in the Corps' recent disbursement, including the West Shore Hurricane Protection Project, which received $760 million, funding plans to shore up land along Lake Pontchartrain in St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and St. James parishes.

“Full funding for the West Shore hurricane protection levee is the biggest WIN in [our] parish history and it will remain so for many years to come. This is a great day for everyone in the region and I am elated to share this awesome news,” St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom wrote in a statement.

East Baton Rouge will use $255 million to clear Ward Creek and to dredge and widen Bayou Fountain, Jones Creek, Beaver Bayou and Blackwater Bayou, assistant chief administrative officer Rowdy Gaudet said. Plans originally called for a concrete lining along Jones Creek, but the city-parish didn't want to pay to maintain the project so final plans for that waterway are still in discussion, Gaudet said.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said the funding significantly addresses drainage issues and is a "significant step forward."

The funding comes from a large pot of money Congress set aside for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-control projects. It is part of a $90 billion relief package passed in February and aimed primarily at states hit by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017.

Portions of southwest Louisiana suffered damage in Harvey, but members of Congress broadened the criteria for the funding to include states hit by multiple major floods in recent years, including Louisiana.

“After decades, this is the day we have been waiting and fighting for. Securing the funding for the Comite River Diversion and other flood prevention projects is a major win for Louisiana families,” Sen. Bill Cassidy wrote in a statement.

The state is in charge of some construction related to the canal, such as building four bridges over the channel.

Gov. John Bel Edwards thanked the Trump administration and Louisiana's congressional delegation for their work.

"Once complete, this project will play one of the most significant roles in our flood mitigation efforts," he said.

Other Louisiana members of Congress also praised the announcement. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, who helped shepherd the disaster-relief package through the House, called the funds critical for residents of his district surrounding New Orleans.

“I have consistently fought for flood protection and coastal restoration funds, including the disaster funding approved by Congress earlier this year,” Scalise said. “I am proud to see this funding now being allocated to vital projects in Southeast Louisiana.”

Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, said he hopes construction of the Comite project would finally ease concerns of residents “who worry every time it rains.”

“The Comite River Diversion Canal has been on the drawing board for decades,” Kennedy said. “A lot of people have watched their homes flood waiting for the diversion canal to be built. Families and businesses in multiple parishes desperately need this funding. The time for meetings and excuses is over, it’s time to get it built.”

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.