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Congressman Garret Graves

Representing the 6th District of Louisiana

OPINION | McHugh David: Playing the grant game to help Comite project, but there’s more ahead

June 12, 2018
In The News

A recent announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of $14 million to the Comite River Diversion Canal shines a ray of hope on the project. While the sum is roughly 1/20th of the total pot, that’s quite alright, because there’s several reasons this particular announcement has excited both the local and federal legislative delegations.

First, when it comes to the Comite, there’s one indelible rule – every dollar counts. A determination some years ago came down from the corps itself that the project was not “financially feasible.” Representatives of the corps doubled-down on that mantra after the flood, saying the cost-benefit ratio for the project didn’t fit their framework.

Meanwhile, local and federal representatives were doing everything they could to find a dollar here, and a dollar there.

Thanks to Congressman Garret Graves’ knowledge of coastal restoration and drainage projects in south Louisiana, he knew the game – there’s no such thing as one big pot of money when it comes to governmental finance. Instead, a wide variety of funds must be located and piled into an account for use on the project later.

So, using that knowledge, any time a federal grant program was discussed, our delegations push for a few dollars for the Comite – just a small portion of the pie, send it our way. As you can see, eventually that stacks up the project pot now well over $300 million.

Second, the gesture shows a willingness by the corps to play ball – a sentiment that hasn’t been true over the past two decades or so. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it became clear that local tax dollars were not going to carry the Comite project as they did for the Amite.

There were too many issues, including more infrastructure movement, larger infrastructure repair projects – including six-lane highways – and smart landowners who saw what the Amite River Diversion Canal did for property values and pre-emptively decided they were going to charge more.

As costs rose for those reasons, the corps began the aforementioned mantra of cost-benefit analysis. Eventually, the relationship between the Amite River Basin Commission and its partners in the corps and DOTD became toxic – a blame game with no end in sight. For more than 10 years it was the same song and dance, as the ARBC “misappropriated funds,” DOTD’s costs kept increasing, and the corps just threw its stance on repeat and moved on to other projects.

Considering a decade of toxic behavior was put aside – with a little push from our representatives – provides a brief glimmer of hope for the future of drainage projects. Why do we need hope?

Because, the third point is, while the end of the Comite’s origin story is near – it’s just the beginning for drainage in the capital area.

Estimates for the Comite’s effect on the Great Flood of 2016 were anywhere from 1.5 to 2 feet less across the drainage basin.

Considering how many thousands of square acres the basin contains, that’s no amount to scoff at, but the Great Flood of 2016 still inflicts billions in damage with that level of flooding.

Discussions of the Comite River Diversion Canal being a starting point for regional drainage kickstarted a counterpoint to the corps’ argument that the project wasn’t within its relevant scope. Of course, it couldn’t tell anyone what was in its scope, but that’s water under the bridge now.

Work has already begun to clean rivers, ditches, canals, bayous – anything that holds or moves water in the capital region. Here in Livingston Parish, matching grant money was acquired by the parish to clean waterways on the eastern borders of our 550 square miles. Efforts have already begun to secure funding for the western portion, including the Amite. Cleaning efforts are desperately needed, but it’s still not enough to make sure that floods akin to what Livingston experienced in ’77, ’83, and ’16 never happen again.

What of the Darlington Reservoir?

A project that was to be created along the St. Helena Parish-East Feliciana Parish line, at the cost of roughly $100 million, in the 1980s was squashed due to a corps and Environmental Protection Agency tandem.

According to geologists from New Orleans, a dam could not be built for that price point because Louisiana delta soil is too loose, and the original project did not cost out enough of it.

Now, anyone who’s been to St. Helena and done some gardening in this area knows that the area is very hilly, and the dirt is red clay. But, it didn’t matter – the report killed funding at the time, and the area experienced three relatively floodless decades and a fight for another drainage project. The dam, and ensuing economic boom from a man-made lake, disappeared.

The project would cost, in today’s dollars, about $350 million (sound familiar) and would have taken several more feet off the top of the Great Flood.

Perseverance and a change in strategy, along with some good ole-fashioned hope and luck, have finally seen some action and dirt moving. That has turned into region-wide momentum on drainage projects which, in the state that drains most of the nation, is paramount to our livelihood.

So, let’s keep the pressure up, keep those waterways clean and expanding so that, maybe, next time it rains 31 inches, the water may come up over River Road in Denham Springs – and a few other common places – and wash on out into Lake Maurepas and the Mississippi River.

Livingston Parish just has to make sure Ascension Parish doesn’t keep bribing the corps.