While it's fashionable to blame protection of individual liberty or curtailment of abusive practices as reasons why the Comite River Diversion Canal remains on the drawing boards, lack of political skill and will actually explain this situation.
Envisioned for over three decades, the project would allow diversion of water from the Comite River to the Mississippi River to prevent flooding. A special tax on residents in affected parishes already has collected a tidy sum, awaiting federal matching dollars, to have it built.
However, environmental concerns have weighed down the effort. Because it would dig through wetlands, federal law requires restoration of similar areas to compensate. This means not only state and local governments obtaining all rights to land in the way of the canal but also in proximate areas unaffected by it. That has taken over a decade, slowed by Act 734 of 2010, which limited how public funds can be used to advance the mitigation process.
The real problem has come from overly restrictive definitions of what land could qualify for compensatory mitigation. U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, who previously gained enormous expertise on the matter as the head of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, thinks the areas eligible for so-called "mitigation banking" should extend farther away than the relatively small area near the project.
A lack of creativity has also hampered progress. Instead of mitigation banking, the state’s lead agency, the Amite River Basin Commission, could pay another entity, such as the state or several neighboring private entities, to restore their own wetlands.
The federal government’s slow pace of funding creates greater drag on the effort, with its lead agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alleging an inconsistent flow of money that makes it hesitant to move forward. Former U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, who represented the area, blames this on what he calls elimination of “earmarks,” or appropriations that go outside of the regular process that serve one or two congressional districts. In fact, in the waning days of his service, Baker unsuccessfully requested money for the canal.
However, allowing use of these instruments makes the cure worse than the disease. Using earmarks for extremely low-priority needs that benefit a narrow set of interests has led to the waste of billions of dollars yearly, continuing even after high-profile efforts supposedly reduced the practice but, contrary to Baker’s rhetoric, have not stopped it. Worthy projects will receive funding through the regular process, so any claims that federal money has come too slowly reflects more on the leadership abilities of Baker and others than on any other factor.
Graves, who now holds Baker’s seat, already has secured $14 million to advance the project. He has suggested completely cutting the Corps out of the loop because it diverted past monies for the effort elsewhere and dragged its feet. The minor flooding earlier this year and the major flooding recently in concert with the accumulated local money match should make a compelling case for a large federal appropriation in next year’s budget, something Graves must continue to pursue.
Now priced at $211 million, the diversion could have saved thousands of structures and even lives for a fraction of the recovery dollars on the way. It’s long overdue.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at http://www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at http://www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter @jsadowadvocate. Email him at email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.