When a Baton Rouge resident asks the city-parish to clear a ditch, haul debris from a canal or fix the eroding bank of a bayou, they may face a wait, if their call is ever answered at all.
The number of open drainage complaints in east Baton Rouge continues to climb, and has swelled to about 3,200, according to city-parish staff.
Over a lunch of fish and grits Thursday, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome addressed thre…
Some critics say the city-parish has run its public maintenance operations based on politics and that those with influence can get problems addressed while others have to wait in line.
The new maintenance department director has challenged that characterization, but work is still scattershot. Understaffed and underfunded maintenance crews rush from one call to the next without any kind of overarching plan for regular preventative work.
Councilman Trae Welch said his constituents around Zachary and the northern part of the parish have been flooding more in the past year. He suspects that debris from last summer's storm is still stopping up the waterways
"(They) haven't been cleaned. ... There's an effort going on, but I don't think it's going fast enough," he said.
Leaders across the region have been especially interested in various flood mitigation projects since last year's deluge. Local and state authorities each have a role to play, said Dietmar Rietschier, executive director of the Amite River Basin Commission, a state agency tasked with reducing flooding in the region.
The Comite River Diversion Canal, the Darlington Reservoir and other large infrastructure projects are intended to dampen the effects of so-called 100-, 500- and 1,000-year events, and they require state and often federal buy-in, Rietschier said.
But the responsibility for making sure Jones Creek, Bayou Duplantier and other local streams are clear if debris falls to the city-parish. Maintaining those waterways can help prevent flash flooding from less destructive but more frequent rain events, Rietschier noted.
"It is a problem. It is indisputable that maintenance is a problem," Rietschier said.
"That is a big problem statewide, it is a problem locally — not because there is a lack of willpower. ... but because there is a lack of resources."
Last year's flood has residents on high alert. Drainage maintenance calls have tripled in the past year, said Kyle Huffstickler, who took over as maintenance director about four months ago.
"We have such a backlog. ... It seems like you never get the number down," he said.
When a citizen calls 311 to complain about a collapsed pipe or a clogged stream, staff try to determine if the problem is going to cause an immediate threat of flooding a building, Huffstickler said. Those calls get priority. Sometimes the diagnosis can be made over the phone.
That's more or less how the system has operated for decades.
"We never had a schedule. ... It's pretty much reactive to complaints," said Jerome Klier, the retired deputy director of the Department of Public Works who was with the department between 1976 and 2004.
Carlos Giron wants East Baton Rouge to look at putting a system in place to address drainage issues in a more effective and consistent manner.
An environmental consultant, Giron was co-chair of the mayor's transition team that evaluated the maintenance department.
His group wrote in their report that "work tasks are often assigned based on the level of political priority as opposed to a designed overarching plan." However, neither he nor Welch said they suspect any particular areas of the parish are getting preferential treatment over others.
Giron also wants the department to track their progress, such as their complaint clearance rate, miles of waterway serviced or number of work orders completed.
Asked if the current level of maintenance is putting homeowners at risk, Giron said "You would think so, but being a scientist I'd want the data."
Nevertheless, he does think Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome is taking his team's suggestions to heart. The mayor recently awarded an engineering firm a contract to design a drainage master plan for the parish. The firm, HNTB, declined to comment for this article.
The state is working on a related project of its own that aims at solving some of the region's drainage woes.
Using aircraft-mounted lasers, contractors will scan the topography of about 1,700 square miles in the Amite River watershed to create a hydrologic model of the region. Engineers hope that state and local authorities can share notes to keep the model up to date and improve its accuracy. Portions are scheduled to be functional in April and August, and the whole thing will be ready to turn over to LSU in early 2019.
"This integrated model will be the best elevation tool available for the Amite River Basin and the only one of its kind in the state," Deputy Assistant Secretary Chris Knotts wrote in an email.
Over the past several months, Bob Jacobsen has been evangelizing for science.
Transportation and Drainage Director Fred Raiford said the Broome administration is interested in preventive maintenance but "it's almost impossible to do that" given the city-parish's current manpower.
The transition report and people interviewed for this story remarked on the high turnover rate among poorly paid maintenance workers. Giron added that the city-parish's "onerous" hiring procedures make it difficult to fill open positions.
Raiford suggested looking at other ways to address flooding, such as building codes.
Most people are already probably protected from flash floods if their homes are built to code, said Klier, the former DPW leader.
However, last week the Metro Council ordered their staff and the Planning Department to study the Unified Development Code to look at possible changes to the floodplain ordinance that spells out what can be built and how it should be built.
Rules are divided based on controversial FEMA floodplain maps, which distinguish between property with an estimated 1 percent or greater chance of flooding in a given year and areas with less than 1 percent chance of flooding each year.
Potential changes could include higher elevation, more green space and additional water retention capacity on new developments, said Planning Director Frank Duke.
In the future, new houses in Baton Rouge may need to be built higher, new neighborhoods coul…
Drainage maintenance doesn't just fall on the city-parish, he continued. Homeowners Associations have a responsibility to keep their retention ponds clear, and if people see their neighbors mucking up the system — for example by fencing over a channel — they need to report it, Duke said.
"The planning process assumes that maintenance is happening. ...You have to assume that the routine things are happening," he said.
"You can design the most perfect system there is, but if you don't provide maintenance, the whole thing falls apart."
Several experts talked about the ongoing challenge of finding money to pay for maintenance.
"How are we going to fund all of these things? That is very important — to find a revenue source. ... The public needs to understand there is a cost associated with all the things we're talking about," said Rietschier, the Basin Commission head.
The city-parish has applied to FEMA to help pay for work, but officials are still waiting to hear back, Huffstickler said. They have received about $230,000 from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to repair an eroded dirt embankment on Weiner Creek, he continued.
If the city-parish tries to levy money locally, history will not be on their side. Baton Rouge voters have consistently declined to take on another tax for drainage. Former mayors Woody Dumas, Tom Ed McHugh and Kip Holden all introduced tax proposals that would have included funding for drainage, but all failed to win popular support, Klier said.
"It's not like wastewater which is set aside, where there's sufficient maintenance," he continued.
The flood may have changed some people's minds, though.
When Broome introduced an infrastructure tax proposal earlier this year, one of the criticisms — even in constantly congested Baton Rouge — was that it focused almost exclusively on roads rather than drainage. On Wednesday, the Metro Council voted not to put the road tax measure up to a popular vote.
Welch, who voted against putting the item on the ballot, said he would be willing to listen to a new infrastructure proposal that also addresses storm water once the mayor's study is complete and the city-parish learns how much funding it can expect from FEMA.