Connect with us

U.S. News

Inching forward but delayed, Comite Diversion flood protection canal may be done with wetlands offsets



MONROE, La. – Federal and state funding shortfalls slowed progress on the long-sought Comite River Diversion Canal for years before it gained new political momentum and money after the historic August 2016 flood.

A less-recognized roadblock was the wetlands mitigation and the tight requirements imposed to compensate for the hundreds of acres of wetlands expected to be destroyed by the 12-mile drainage canal designed to divert flood water from the Comite to the Mississippi River, local officials have said.

Near the end of April, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the last two contracts, worth a combined $19.85 million, necessary to compensate for the wetlands destruction expected so far from the project, which is a year behind schedule but in the early stages of construction.

“At this time, the Corps feels mitigation requirements have been satisfied; however, this could change as the project progresses and additional mitigation requirements are identified,” Corps officials in New Orleans said in a statement.

If the Corps has indeed finished wetlands mitigation, that’s a small milestone for a project first proposed nearly three decades ago after another historic flood devastated Baton Rouge in 1983.

Both contracts pay for credits from wetlands mitigation banks with restoration properties in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, federal online contracting documents show.

The largest, at nearly $16.8 million, is going to Port Allen-based Delta Land Services and is expected to go toward its 7,385-acre Pontchartrain Basin Umbrella Mitigation Bank. It is restoring cut-over timberland off Frost Road in Livingston Parish into different types of swamp hardwood forests.

“Delta is excited to be able to play our part in helping this critical project come to fruition,” said George Guerin, Delta’s founder and chief operating officer. “The progress made in recent years by federal, state and local officials has advanced this effort towards a major milestone in permitting, so hopefully soon they can move into construction and, most importantly, flood protection.”

Despite that incremental progress, the project’s pace remains a sore point for some Amite River Basin residents who flooded in ’16. Earlier this year, Corps officials acknowledged that the completion date would be pushed back a year, to December 2022.

Announcement of the delay in early March prompted Central resident Robert Burns and others who flooded to form their own group, known as Concerned Citizens for the Diversion Canal, to track the project and stay on top of agency officials.

Burns, who is retired from a career managing industrial construction projects, said the Corps and state Department of Transportation and Development lack a sense of urgency.

In recent emails to Corps officials and others and in social media posts, Burns keeps asking: “where are the excavators?” He argues that continued growth and clogged waterways makes current conditions worse than when the ’16 flood inundated tens of thousands of homes and caused billions of dollars in damage.

“I’m telling you, we are more vulnerable today than we were five years ago,” Burns said, “and so the fact that that doesn’t make them want to do this project faster … if I was DOTD or the Corps, I would wake up thinking about how could I accelerate this project.”

The canal planned between Baker and Zachary has been projected to lower flood levels on the Amite and Comite rivers from as little as half a foot to more than 6 feet during major floods in northern East Baton Rouge, western Livingston and northeastern Ascension parishes.

Corps officials said they tried to structure the project so multiple sections are designed, cleared or built at the same time — yet it has still fallen a year behind.

“The updated schedule is a product of finalizing the design, and thus the entire project footprint, which in turn finalized the necessary real estate acquisition and utility relocations needed to begin construction,” Corps officials explained.

More than 60 pipelines and other utilities have to be relocated for the overland canal, and that couldn’t be finalized until the final footprint was known.