Stemming the Tide in Central

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By Jeanie Barnett-  as seen in the Winter 2010 issue of Neighborhood Connections

    Last week I met with three people representing the Amite River Basin Drainage and Water Conservation District,  Dietmar Rietschier, Executive Director, Lawrence Callender, President and Larry Bankston, attorney.  They were not only very helpful in answering questions, but excited to the degree of passion about the project.  I understand their enthusiasm.  It is not often that a project can be developed that results so clearly in a situation in which there is no real downside.  So many government projects may primarily benefit one group of people, but cost another group of people in taxes.  Some look like a sweet deal, but when you trace the funding, it’s really “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”  For the residents of Central, the Comite Diversion Canal project benefits us and saves us money at the same time.

What is the Comite River Diversion Plan?

    This is the largest flood control project in East Baton Rouge Parish since the construction of the Mississippi Levees in the 1930’s.  The project is a 12 mile channel with a system of drop structures and pumps located between the Cities of Baker and Zachary.

    “The main purpose of the project is to divert 50% of the flood water from the upper Comite River sub-basin during flooding events into the Mississippi River,” Director Rietschier said. “This diversion will result in substantial stage reductions primarily in the north-eastern part of East Baton Rouge Parish, primarily the City of Central.  Approximately 60% of the 100-year floodplain in East Baton Rouge will be affected by this project.”

     If you have any recollection of the flooding here in the 1970’s through 1990’s, you are only beginning to know the potential impact.  In the intervening 30 years since that time, literally thousands of acres of streets, buildings and non-permeable concrete parking lots have been built in the area.  That means that the same conditions, causing the same rise in river waters could translate into even higher levels of flooding due to increased impediments to absorption and run off.

    Expected future stage lowering with project in place:

•  Comite River at Hooper Road

    10 year flood        6.0 feet lower

    25 year flood        5.7 feet lower

    50 year flood        5.1 feet lower

    100 year flood      4.4 feet lower

• Comite River at Comite LA. (Joor)

   10 year flood         4.8 feet lower

   25 year flood         4.8 feet lower

   50 year flood         4.3 feet lower

   100 year flood       3.8 feet lower

How is this project funded?

    In 2000 a 3 mill tax was approved by forward thinking voters in the midst of a drought.  In October, 2010, again, the citizens within the taxing District approved a 2.65 mill tax.  The Federal government required Louisiana through the Department of Transportation and Development and the Amite River Basin Commission to contribute funds for the project to be approved.  Former Congressman Richard Baker was a champion of this cause. 

     In this multi-jurisdictional project the funding is shared between the U S Army Corps of Engineers (federal) Louisiana State Department of Transportation and Development (State) and the Amite River Basin Commission (local).

What is this going to cost me?

    As an example, if your home is valued at $150,000:                     

A reduction in flood elevation of       Estimated savings in annual flood ins. premium        Cost of a 2.65 mill tax            Estimated net annual savings to homeowner

1 foot  $191.00    $19.88   $171.12

2 feet   $262.00    $19.88   $242.12

    So, as you see, Central residents will benefit from reduction to potential flood damage as well as a savings in flood insurance premiums.  A more subtle, but real benefit is that of the increased property value of all of the land in the City of Central.

Other than flood mitigation, what impact will this project have?

   After a lengthy planning and public participation process, several alternative, minimally invasive routes for this project were identified. Evaluations were done taking into account environmental affect on plant and animal life, archaeological and historical considerations such as, Indian mounds, logistic challenges such as gas line relocations, and cultural and aesthetic impact to the surrounding population. To mitigate wetlands affected by the project within the right of way, 1484 acres of land along the Comite River will be purchased and preserved. The plan also calls for planting trees on 679 acres of cleared land.

How will it be managed and maintained into the future?

    Upon completion there will be a flood plain management plan established by the commission that will outline policies and codes and regulations to be implemented in all local governments to prevent negation of this mitigation.  The East Baton Rouge Government will be responsible for the maintenance of this canal once it is completed.

What’s the hold up?

    The big challenge right now is the ticking clock.  The conditions creating the major flood events of the past are not flukes; they will repeat themselves. 

    The project is moving as fast as the money comes in, yet in the years since Congress approved the canal, costs of construction have risen and projected completion dates have been moved back.  The Corps of Engineers has had to prioritize its resources to address the damage caused to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.   The only funds that are up to date are the local match, which has allowed for the continuity of the construction. 

    The slow acquisition of federal funds is a major factor in the delay of the project, but the bureaucracy of acquiring property is also an excruciatingly time-consuming process.

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