072218 BR flood risk map.jpg

East Baton Rouge's new stormwater master plan report is unlikely to satisfy residents clambering for floodplain reform, though it does indicate the city-parish is ready to view disaster mitigation in a new way.

Following the 2016 flood, the city-parish hired consultants to study local hydrology with an eye on creating a plan that could be used to prioritize infrastructure projects and guide amendments to the building code.

Ultimately, the plan will serve as an anchor for the debate over how much flood protection East Baton Rouge residents are willing to pay for.

As noted in a new report, authorities wanted a plan in place by the end of 2018, but work is expected to continue through 2021.

The new document, however, does show some philosophical shifts and provides a ranked list of the watersheds that need attention. From high to low, the three waterways requiring the most repair are Ward Creek, the area around Jones Creek/Honeycut Bayou/the confluence of the Amite and Comite rivers, and Claycut Bayou.

To arrive at the list, contractors created a new risk assessment map of East Baton Rouge. Traditionally, flood maps have been based on Federal Emergency Management Agency records. FEMA has sought to determine areas that have a one percent chance of flooding every year so mortgage holders in those areas can be required to purchase flood insurance.

The city-parish's plan divides Baton Rouge into three risk categories that considers not only the chance an area will flood but also the scale of the potential damage. Therefore, land with a high population density, infrastructure and important buildings like hospitals are given priority.

The city-parish also plans to model not only the 100-year storm, but the 10-, 50- and 500-year storms as well. Transportation and drainage director Fred Raiford has left open the possibility that eventually there may be different building standards for developers in different risk areas.

"Everything is open … all factors," Raiford said. "I don't think anything is sacred."

The document released in the last week is not sufficiently detailed to start amending the building code. Planners had indicated they would use the Phase I report to re-examine elevation standards, subdivision retention requirements and other items, but residents will have to wait a while longer to see any change.

"There is nothing in the Phase I report that can be used to support changes to the ordinances," city-parish planning director Frank Duke wrote in an email to The Advocate. "The schedule that they have included indicates they will be working on identifying potential ordinance changes beginning in September of this year through November of 2019.

"I remain hopeful that we will have enough information to begin looking at changes in early 2019 at the latest." 

Advocates for change were incensed.

Nancy Curry was "irritated to no end" that the report won't result in changes, as had been advertised. The head of the Federation of Greater Baton Rouge Civic Associations called the report both a farce and a dog-and-pony show, with which she is "extremely disappointed."

Bryan Jones is the associate vice president of HNTB, the engineering firm hired to produce the stormwater master plan. He said it's vital to collect thorough data on the current water management system to provide a baseline, and crews will also have to perform extensive surveying and modeling to recommend the best path forward. It's an inherently labor-intensive and time-consuming but necessary process, he said.

"Without data on the state of the existing system … the stormwater master plan is really somewhat useless," Jones said.

How the plan is finally used will rely on the local electorate.

The city-parish has already received funding for the Comite River Diversion Canal and to dredge several local waterways, and other federal flood mitigation funding is available. Raiford vowed to seek grant money, but eventually voters will have to consider whether they want to impose a property tax, sales tax or fee to pay for stormwater upgrades.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, meanwhile, is seeking a three-decade half-cent sales tax to pay for road improvements. Curry fears that should the measure pass, it would zap the local will for infrastructure fundraising focused on flood mitigation.

"The mayor is shooting herself in the foot with this 30-year roads tax," Curry said.

Public meetings to start next week as Mayor Broome pitches MOVEBR sales tax for new roads

Raiford said the stormwater debate will focus on what level of risk residents are ready to take on. That's why the stormwater master plan intends to investigate the 10-year floodplain, the 200-year floodplain and the 500-year floodplain.

Voters will have to decide how much protection they're willing to pay for. Authorities said that with a stormwater master plan in place, they can at least have a grounded debate.

"I wish we would've done this 15 years ago," Raiford said.

"I think our whole philosophy on drainage is going to change dramatically," he said. "I think we need to be more aggressive to address peoples' concerns."


Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.