Officials with St. Tammany Parish and Covington disagree on whose responsibility it is to maintain the Mile Branch drainage canal that cuts through the heart of the town.
But both governments agree that the approximately 2½-mile-long waterway is essential to properly drain Covington and surrounding areas and that at present it is underperforming.
Now it appears that the parish and city also have agreed to join forces to pay for necessary repairs and clearing of the drainage canal.
In interviews, both Covington Mayor Mike Cooper and St. Tammany Parish Chief Administrative Officer Gina Campo said it is likely that the two governments will enter into a cooperative endeavor agreement to stabilize the canal and improve water flow through one of western St. Tammany’s most important drainage arteries.
To show he’s ready to work with the parish on the project, Cooper included what he called “good faith money” in the proposed 2018 budget he presented to the City Council on Sept. 19.
The Five Year Capital Improvement Plan he proposed calls for spending $1.925 million on drainage improvements throughout the city, with a sizable portion of that money dedicated to “grading, de-snagging and clearing” the Mile Branch.
Campo said the parish is expected to place money in its budget to match those funds and show its own commitment to the Mile Branch project.
“The city of Covington said $250,000 would be a good place (for both of us to start), and I agree,” Campo said, noting that parish public works and engineering staff members already have inspected the Mile Branch alongside their Covington counterparts.
What they found, Cooper said, is a 60-year-old canal that has seen better days. Erosion has caused parts of the banks to wash away, allowing the waterway to encroach upon nearby residents’ property.
During widespread flooding of the city and surrounding areas last year, the Mile Branch did not perform well in dispatching floodwater from rapidly developing areas north of the city to the Tchefuncte River.
Clogs throughout the system can lead to reduced flow and cause minor flooding adjacent to the waterway even during significantly smaller rain events.
The question has been whose job it is to fix the problems. The canal was constructed as a state public works project in the 1950s and, according to Covington City Attorney Rod Rodrigue, was granted to the parish as a drainage servitude. He said that agreement said the parish was responsible for maintaining the canal, though the parish apparently disputed that when the two sides first met in June to discuss the matter.
“The parish has taken the position in prior servitude issues that if a municipality annexes property (around the servitude), that it, de facto, becomes the city’s servitude,” Rodrigue told the Covington City Council on Sept. 19. “We have a serious disagreement with that. We didn’t accept that. Portions of (the Mile Branch) were already in city limits when the servitude was granted to the parish.”
Cooper said offering to assist in a rehabilitation project on the Mile Branch doesn’t mean Covington is accepting ownership of the waterway.
“This is a parish right-of-way," he said. "There’s no negotiating that legal opinion. We can fight this out in court, or we can agree that it’s a problem and put the money toward fixing the problem.”
Campo said it shouldn’t be a problem at all, noting that the parish frequently works with local municipalities on similar projects. She cited the W-14 drainage canal in Slidell as an example, and said the parish and Slidell also have worked jointly on clearing lateral drainage systems in recent months.
“Rather than spend a bunch of money trying to figure out who needs to maintain the thing, we’re going to work on it together,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean the parish is saying the Mile Branch is entirely its responsibility either.
“Long term, in 50 years, who’s responsible? We’re going to have to figure that out,” Campo said.
At the Sept. 19 City Council meeting, President Sam O’Keefe told his colleagues that the problems Covington residents are experiencing have a lot to do with growth outside of city limits.
“The Mile Branch doesn’t only drain water from the city of Covington,” O’Keefe said. “But the main thing was to get off dead center and move in the right direction (on clearing and repairing the canal). I think that’s where we are right now.”
Cooper urged that work begin as soon as possible, provided that the Covington and parish councils agree to provide the money.
“It’s an urgent matter,” the mayor said. “This is a major artery that originates north of our city. Drainage doesn’t stop at the parish line. We want to do something, and I think the parish does too.”
Among the other drainage projects potentially on tap in Covington, the Blue Swamp Creek and Patricia Ditch are among the largest, Cooper said. Engineering costs for both were included in the 2017 budget, and his proposed 2018 budget would fund grading and clearing of both waterways, which cross the north and central parts of Covington.