Canal digging projects, pump station improvements to reduce Ascension flooding

The first batch of new drainage improvements Ascension Parish officials say could help lessen future flooding from the kind of intense rains that fell in late May and early June are expected to cost nearly $10 million.

East Ascension drainage officials have put forward new estimates for previously proposed canal digging, pump construction and other projects to improve drainage in the Bayou Conway-Panama Canal watershed in the wake of the heavy rains.

Nearly 18 inches fell between May 28 and June 2 in the area drained by the bayou and the onetime agricultural canal. The area is on the southern edge of East Ascension and is outside East Ascension’s drainage pumping system. The area is home to the Pelican Point subdivision and Darrow community, which includes the Astroland subdivision heavily flooded in the rains.

According to the new estimate, the most extensive of these projects won’t be finished until the middle of 2016.

The estimate also leaves off longer-range improvements also being considered for the Conway-Panama watershed, including a future regional detention pond, possible new drainage pumps that would send water to the Mississippi River and new levees in the Sorrento area.

Councilman Randy Clouatre, chairman of the East Ascension drainage board, called the projects a starting point that will require more advance work.

“I’m not saying the answer is in front of us right now, but that’s going to be the place we need to key in on,” Clouatre said.

As proposed, the thrust of these improvements, which would include adding a seventh pump to the Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station, would ease the passage of water through the swampy and flat lower Conway-Panama basin or route some water away from that basin into mechanically drained routes that lead to Lake Maurepas.

New pump engineering and construction at Marvin Braud station has been estimated to cost $5 million while a series of improvements to widen and clear out major ditches and other waterways would cost another $4.71 million.

Parish officials are also mulling hiring additional drainage workers to do some of the ditch and waterway work, which could actually lower estimates by $2 million to $3 million because the work can be done more cheaply than contracting it out.

The new projects have been plugged into the East Ascension Consolidated Gravity Drainage District’s capital improvements list, helping boost the cost of the entire program to $34.4 million. That new number means the district will have to use its sizeable $35 million fund surplus to pay for all the projects, parish officials said.

East Ascension Drainage Director Bill Roux told the drainage board July 7 the surplus would be tapped over a three- to four-years period and drop to about $14 million before it could start rising again by $1 million to $2 million per year.

“So I feel comfortable that with the surplus that we have and our revenue and our financing, that we can have a major project ongoing, even if we have to hire more people, and sustain a fund balance the whole time,” Roux said.

The capital list encompasses a variety of long-standing projects across East Ascension that are in various stages of planning, permitting and construction.

The rolling list has been funded with a $65 million bond issue from 2007 that paid off then existing debt and provided about $60 million in revenue. Only about $20 million from the bond issue’s one-time revenue remains, the parish estimate says.

East Ascension residents like Sheila Templet, 50, who, with her family, lives on South Hodgeson Avenue south of Gonzales and just north of Bayou Conway, are looking for a solution.

Though she knows her family lives in a low-lying area, Templet said the flooding in late May was the worst she had ever seen. Her home didn’t flood because it is a mobile home raised several feet but high water stayed in her yard and over the road for days.

Templet had to miss two days of work because she could not easily get out in knee-deep water to her car, which was parked at a family member’s house.

“Every time it floods here, it takes days for the water to go down. Every time,” she said.

The Conway and Panama are clogged by overgrowth and bisected by Airline Highway, Interstate 10 and the Kansas City Southern railroad tracks.

While the overgrowth slows the flow of water, the highways and rail line, which were built on raised, earthen bases laid through the swamps, act like dams that bottleneck draining water, parish officials say.

Roux has proposed widening the Clouatre Ditch south of Gonzales near Templet’s home and clearing out two natural sloughs in the Brittany area to allow high water in the Conway-Panama basin to be redirected to Marvin Braud station. The seventh pump would handle the added flow.

Within the Conway-Panama basin, the parish would also clear out an old, overgrown section of the Panama Canal and widen openings under a KCS railroad bridge to improve water flow under the highways and railroad tracks.

That work would come in addition to a nearly $1.9 million debris clearing project already happening on 25 miles of the lower Conway and Panama. That job is nearly finished and mostly paid for, the estimate says.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter at @NewsieDave.