Louisiana leaders are talking about getting financially creative to scare up the money to build the Comite River Diversion Canal.
For decades, authorities have waited for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to commit funds to dig the canal that will drain the river into the Mississippi during floods. But they haven't substantially moved forward.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves says with the exception of post-Hurricane Katrina work around New Orleans, the Corps has a dismal record of getting work done in Louisiana, with just one other project completed in the last two decades.
"That's not a strategy that gets you to the goal line," the Baton Rouge Republican said.
So Graves, state and local officials are now looking at alternatives, exploring a range of possibilities that could include stepped-up state financing or innovative ways to mix federal funding streams. One possibility includes convincing parishes to commit their FEMA hazard mitigation funds to pay for the work.
It will be a tightrope act as agencies try to pull in money from new sources without cutting off their access to Corps funds.
Finishing the diversion will likely take funding to the tune of at least $200 million. Graves said the state has successfully worked around the rules before to push through critical construction projects, including during his tenure as head of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
"If they truly have a will — and this isn't some dog and pony show — there is a pathway to have this project built with federal funds in two years," he asserted.
The Comite River Diversion Canal, authorized as a Corps project 25 years ago, has faced a number of bureaucratic and funding hurdles.
A convoluted budgeting process at the federal agency and the end of congressional earmarks — which once let powerful Washington lawmakers set aside money for pet projects — has made it difficult to count on the Corps to come up with their share of the price tag, Graves and several state officials have said.
Local leaders are hopeful, but cautious, that creative workarounds could revive the stagnant project and begin churning dirt along the planned canal's 12-mile route. The pathway to funding and building the canal could be winding and require buy-in from several different agencies.
It would also potentially involve dodging a significant amount of red tape and carefully navigating a number of federal rules and regulations.
Livingston Parish has given the most firm support. Officials are willing to put up $10 million out of the $62 million they’re expected to receive from FEMA to perform hazard mitigation in the wake of last summer’s flood, said emergency preparedness director Mark Harrell.
“Nobody wanted to jump in, so we jumped in,” he said.
However, Livingston is asking East Baton Rouge Parish to give $20 million and Ascension Parish to kick in another $5 million. Authorities in those parishes said they were willing to talk about contributing out of their federal disbursements, though they didn’t commit to specific amounts. East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome is prepared to dedicate some funding to get the project off the ground, said interim Chief Administrative Officer Jim Llorens.
The parish stands to receive about $104 million and is awaiting the completion of a comprehensive stormwater master plan to determine how to mete out the money, said Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Rowdy Gaudet. The city-parish also needs to figure out how the FEMA funds will be divided with the separate municipalities of Central, Baker and Zachary, he continued.
“Ascension Parish stands ready to contribute our fair share to the Comite River Diversion Project, and we are open to continued dialogue with our regional partners on that,” parish spokesman Martin McConnell wrote in an email that noted the parish also plans to spend the money on various drainage and other projects.
One consideration is that Ascension and Livingston stand to gain little until the project is fully completed. Canal construction has been designed in five separate phases. The diversion will drain four bodies of water — Bayou Baton Rouge, Cypress Bayou, White Bayou and the Comite River itself. However, the canal must be built from west to east so it can drain into the Mississippi, so it won’t reach the Comite until the last stage.
Some have proposed taking away Corps responsibility for at least a couple phases of the project, leaving open the possibility that the agency could still be involved in the other stages. That could open the door to allow other sources of federal funding because under current law, other federal funds — such as the hazard mitigation money or congressional flood-relief block grants — can't be used on a Corps-authorized project.
There is precedent for the Corps to partially deauthorize a project, said Shawn Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Wilson wants to start getting portions of the canal online and is working with Graves and the parishes to explore whether a partial deauthorization would help them move faster.
He's interested in clarifying the state's options but said he'll have to weigh several factors. A shift away from Corps money could get things moving more quickly but perhaps make it more difficult to find qualified contractors.
"(Partial deauthorization) is not an easy task," Wilson warned. As of last week, he was unsure how much of the canal the state may try to take over.
Dietmar Rietschier, executive director of the regional Amite River Basin Commission, is eager for whatever approval the Corps will have to give to allow the parishes to use their disaster grants.
"I hope that can happen," he said.
But officials need to make sure there won’t be consequences, counseled Larry Bankston, attorney for the basin commission, which has been collecting a millage in parts of the three parishes since 2000 to help fund the canal.
All the players need to figure out whether such a deauthorization would require the diversion to start fresh with the congressional approval process and whether the project would be subjected to more rigorous wetlands mitigation rules that have been enacted since it was first given the go-ahead.
“That is the worry about this,” Bankston said.
Wilson said he doesn’t expect that the project would be subjected to more stringent wetlands requirements, at least.
The New Orleans Army Corps office has not yet seen a specific plan to separate or deauthorize various portions of the diversion canal, said public affairs chief Ricky Boyett.
“Until we are able to review their proposal, we can’t speculate on the feasibility or possibility of undertaking this approach,” he wrote in an email.
Agencies will also have to decide how much the state and parishes should take on. Phase one, which would drain Bayou Baton Rouge, would cost somewhere north of $50 million to finish, Wilson estimated. However, phase one alone “doesn’t do much,” because it would only drain the body of water closest to the Mississippi, west of Baker and Zachary, Bankston said.
Digging the canal further east to catch water from Cypress Bayou would have a “substantial” effect on flooding, though it still wouldn’t provide relief to people around Central, he continued. Building the first two phases should cost about $88.5 million, Bankston said.
DOTD and the Basin Commission have about $26 million stockpiled, and the state Legislature set aside $87 million for the project in their latest spending bill. The Corps has dedicated $6.7 million in their most recent proposal. Money has already been spent drawing up designs, buying land, and performing other work, but it will cost $200 million or more to finish the canal.
While the conversation originally focused on the federal hazard mitigation money as the non-Corps money to tap, there is also interest in using Community Block Development grants provided to rebuilding communities through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Graves, the congressman, said he'd recommend pushing forward with the first phase or two of the Comite River project in partnership with the Corps, ensuring that the $6.7 million that agency currently has set aside for the project — as well as any additional money coming down the pipe — would go toward building it.
But the state and local stakeholders may want to push ahead without the Corps by using other funding streams after taking on the first phase or two of the project with the federal agency, Graves said.
"We’re going to have to choreograph that very carefully to make sure we don’t leave any money on the table," Graves said.
The Capital area can look to coastal Louisiana, where officials have successfully leveraged those types of funds to perform work on the $400 million Morganza to the Gulf hurricane buffer project.
After Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, Terrebonne Parish got about $120 million in community block grant funds, recalled Reggie Dupre, executive director of the parish’s levee district. About $80 million went toward flood protection, including $34 million specifically for Morganza to the Gulf. Lafourche Parish chipped in another $8 million.
“That’s the only real significant federal money for this federal project,” Dupre said.
More money has come from the state and from a property tax and a pair of sales taxes, he continued.
“You open the book and look everywhere. You don’t put the blinders on. … This is survival,” said Windell Curole, the South Lafourche Levee District general manager.
While Morganza to the Gulf has received money from HUD, it hasn’t used hazard mitigation funding.
“It’s been kind of hands-off to us, and we haven’t really chased it,” Dupre said.
That’s because those funds generally get turned over to the parishes and municipalities, which have spent the money on smaller-scale projects like pump stations, he said.
Mitigation funds can also be used to help property owners elevate buildings, or to buy out the owners of land that repeatedly floods to allow it to revert to spillway and wetlands. However, Gaudet, the Baton Rouge official, said the city-parish would prefer to invest its money in larger projects rather than elevation.
On several occasions since the flood, authorities in Ascension, East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes have committed to working together on regional flood control measures. After a quarter-century with little progress, Graves said, he's become optimistic that officials are closing in on a feasible path toward construction in the near future.
"I'm talking about finishing this project," Graves said. "We’re talking about turning dirt. This is a big deal and more progress on this project than we’ve ever seen."
That’s why places like Livingston Parish are signing on to give money to kick-start work in around Baker, even if they won’t see a benefit until the canal stretches all the way to the Comite, said Harrell, the parish emergency chief.
“When it’s finished, we’re going to gain from it,” he said.