Money an issue as Comite project drags on for decades

In March 2003, then-U.S. Rep. Richard Baker was watching the ceremonial start of a public works project he’d been doggedly pushing for years — the Comite River Diversion Canal.

The canal — designed to prevent flooding that repeatedly destroyed homes and businesses in East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes — was greenlighted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1992. Finally, more than a decade later, work was about to get underway.

As Baker chatted with other dignitaries at the groundbreaking, a state legislator ribbed the congressman.

Though Baker has forgotten the lawmaker’s name, the conversation sticks fast in his mind today: “As complicated and as big as this project is, Baker, we’re probably going to have to roll you up to the edge of the canal in a wheelchair when it’s done.”

That comment might turn out to be more of a prophecy than a joke.

Construction of the Comite Diversion Canal was supposed to last six to nine years.

Now, however, the best guess is it won’t be finished until some time in the mid-2020s, which would mean about 20 years to build the canal and its water-control structures.

It took about five years to build the Hoover Dam, and the Transcontinental Railroad took about seven.

So what’s taking the Comite Diversion Canal so long?

State and local officials say a lack of money is the project’s biggest problem, along with issues related to impacts on wetlands. At best, officials say, the project could be completed 10 years from now — assuming federal funds trickle in consistently.

The slowness of the project is especially frustrating to people in the area who approved a property tax in 2000 to contribute local dollars to the construction.

“We keep paying for this every year on our property taxes,” said David Barrow, Central City’s chief administrative officer. “We’re paying money, but we’re not seeing anything being done. Personally, it’s frustrating to me. I hear from people in the area as well.”

Sitting, waiting, wishing

Louisiana enlisted the Army Corps of Engineers in 1985 to study ways to prevent floods like the 1983 disaster, said Dietmar Rietschier, executive director of the Amite River Basin Commission, which oversees the state’s responsibilities for the diversion canal project.

The study spawned several ideas, including the Comite Diversion Canal.

When it’s finally finished, the 12-mile canal sitting halfway between Baker and Zachary will stretch from the Comite River to the Mississippi River and cross U.S. 67, La. 19 and U.S. 61.

Along with lowering flood levels, officials hope the canal will lower flood insurance premiums for residents living in the Amite River Basin.

The structure is being built in five phases, Rietschier said. The first phase started in 2003 and is still underway, though the Lilly Bayou Control Structure, a water-level control structure 2 miles east of the Mississippi River, was finished around 2008.

Rietschier was hesitant to give a definite timeline for the canal’s finish, but he said it could be completed in 10 years if everything goes just right.

“This project is not based on a construction schedule,” he said. “When you build a building downtown, it’s on a construction schedule. But we are depending on the stream of funding to a large extent, so that changes a lot of the construction schedule.”

Congress gradually set aside funds for the project over time, but the estimated cost of the project kept growing from initial projections of $63 million in the late 1980s to $199 million in 2013.

It was difficult for Louisiana’s congressional delegation to earmark funds for the canal because it was viewed nationally as a pork-barrel project serving a small population, Baker said. Louisiana legislators also battled over how many state dollars should be contributed to the canal.

Rietschier said that in the late 1990s, then-Gov. Mike Foster told him the project would receive significant state funding if the basin commission could find a source of local revenue to offset the state’s costs.

Commission officials in 2000 convinced people living in the Amite River Basin Drainage and Water Conservation District — which includes portions of East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes — to approve a 3-mill property tax.

The tax has encountered its own problems. It was renewed in 2010, but a group of Central residents sued, claiming the basin commission illegally kept collecting more money than allowed by the tax proposition. An East Baton Rouge Parish jury ruled Wednesday that the commission did not overstep its bounds.

In 2003, with the tax in hand, the Army Corps of Engineers finally broke ground on the canal. But the Lilly Bayou Control Structure is the only major portion of the canal that crews have completed.

Rietschier blamed some of the delays on Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in 2005, saying the storm diverted much of the Corps from the canal to projects in New Orleans.

But Bobby Duplantier, senior project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the hurricane did not cause any major delays in the canal’s construction. He pointed to a shrinking base of federal funds as the biggest setback.

“Everybody knows the Corps’ resources were stretched pretty thin at that time,” Duplantier said.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said he and other area legislators began meeting in 2010, before the 3-mill tax was renewed, to discuss the status of the project and how to continue to fund it.

Earmarks — money directed to specific projects by individual lawmakers — are no longer an option because Congress greatly curtailed them in 2010, White said. Also, funds from the president’s executive budget are off limits because the federal government’s share of the cost is too high at the moment.

White said he believes the state can cobble together enough funds, along with the money collected from the 2000 property tax, to raise the state’s contribution to the project and make it eligible for executive budget dollars.

He said the 3-mill tax generated $15 million over its first 10 years and could generate another $20 million its second decade.

“If we can get these lawsuits behind us ... then the project should start moving,” White said.

Mitigation issues

Aside from funding, the biggest roadblock is resolving wetland mitigation issues stemming from the project, basin commission and state officials say.

Federal and state laws require that any agency completing a project that damages wetlands must perform another project to offset that environmental impact. Those side projects are routinely referred to as mitigation.

The state and the Amite River Basin Commission initially allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to handle land acquisition and mitigation for the project to relieve some of the stress on the local agencies, but routine bureaucratic snags and funding shortfalls led the state to assume that responsibility a few years ago, said Rietschier, the river basin commission director.

“There’s certain bureaucratic impedances that come along the way,” Rietschier said. “I’m very optimistic that we will overcome some of that. It’s really administrative and bureaucratic in nature.”

The Army Corps of Engineers initially wanted the state to plant trees and vegetation along roughly 1,700 acres of land down the Comite River’s banks from the river’s planned intersection with the canal down to about Hooper Road, Rietschier said.

But not everybody wanted to let the state expropriate their land for the mitigation project, he said. State legislators passed a law in 2010 that prevented expropriation of land along the Comite River for canal mitigation.

The commission has since looked at other areas for mitigation, including Profit Island, a small island in the middle of the Mississippi west of Lilly Bayou.

But State Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, said Profit Island is not a viable option because the commission is still negotiating with landowners over the island’s surface rights.

Hodges pointed to mitigation banking — which allows developers to buy credits to help pay for mitigation projects — as a more logical solution.

Hodges hopes the mitigation problems and other issues will be solved by a task force she wants to create to determine how to move the canal’s construction forward. Hodges has a bill filed this session to form the task force.

“We need someone directing the whole process,” Hodges said. “There’s so much bureaucracy involved (and) that ultimately is the issue.”

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, said he believes the wetlands mitigation issues can be resolved by local and state agencies, which will help spur the project on.

“Once that’s fixed, it will help cut down the red tape so the project can get the necessary funding,” Vitter said in a statement.

But U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, said in a statement that the Army Corps of Engineers’ shrinking budget and $60 million backlog of authorized projects will prevent the Corps from receiving more federal funds for the Comite Diversion Canal anytime soon.

“We cannot afford to wait around for the Army Corps to get its act together,” Landrieu said. “I will continue working to reform the Corps and secure independent revenue streams that allow local governments to make critical investments in their water infrastructure.”

Requests for comment from Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, who represents the Baton Rouge area, were unsuccessful.

Rietschier said the mitigation issues could be resolved in about four to five years at best, at which point the canal’s revenue stream will speed up again.

However, the 72-year-old Rietschier joked, “By that time, it wouldn’t matter anyhow because I’m going to be retired.”