Profit Island purchase could restart work on Comite Diversion Canal

A flood control agency wants to buy an island in the Mississippi River, hoping the purchase will jump-start new construction on the long-delayed Comite River Diversion Canal.

Representatives of the Amite River Basin Drainage and Water Conservation District’s board of commissioners have begun talks with the owners of Profit Island, which lies off the west end of the canal’s proposed route between the Comite and Mississippi rivers.

The district’s executive director, Dietmar Rietschier, said the commission wants to acquire the island for mitigation projects that will compensate for the loss of environmentally sensitive areas where the canal and other flood-control features are built.

Profit Island is about 2,300 acres and was formed when a straight channel, now known as the Profit Island Chute, cut across a large bend in the Mississippi River, according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study.

Profit Island LLC owns the land, and Troy Furr, one of the principals in the corporation, confirmed that negotiations are under way for the property sale.

Rietschier said the land “is a beautiful area. It has a lot of flora and fauna, a lot of deer that migrate back and forth, depending on the water level.

“The river has been trying to straighten itself out at that point and cut the meander,” he said, but the corps put a weir in the chute to reduce the flow through it and force water into the main channel west of the island.

A large part of the island is inundated by river flooding.

Rietschier said he took representatives of The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society to the island, and “they were very impressed.”

“It’s a big magnet for birds,” he said. “It’s very logical; there are no people or roads out there.”

The corps proposes to plant bottomland hardwood trees on some of the property to enhance its value as a wildlife habitat.

The canal is planned along an east-west path north of Baker and south of Zachary.

During a flood, the canal would divert water from the Comite, a tributary of the Amite River, to Lilly Bayou west of U.S. 61, where it would be channeled into the Mississippi.

The canal was conceived in the aftermath of 1983’s devastating flooding in the Amite basin. The corps suggested a possible route in 1987 and a federal law passed in the 1999 fiscal year became the main authorization for construction.

Officials broke ground for the large Lilly Bayou control structure in 2003, and the project was completed in early 2011.

Corps officials mentioned a $64 million price tag in 1987 for the entire project, but the cost estimate has climbed over the years to a September projection of $193 million. Barring further complications, completion is expected in 2016.

The corps says the project will divert about 50 percent of the flood waters from the upper Comite and reduce flood stages between the diversion point and the river’s confluence with the Amite at Denham Springs.

The project also would lower stages to a lesser degree on the Amite between Denham Springs and Port Vincent and reduce flooding in some areas of East Baton Rouge Parish along Hurricane Creek, Roberts Canal and south of the canal along White’s, Cypress and Baton Rouges bayous, according to Corps of Engineers publications.

At one time, the commission contracted with the corps to acquire property, Rietschier said.

“We thought that would speed the project because they know the regulations. That actually proved to be the contrary. We should have been mitigating those land losses as we moved along,” Rietschier said, pointing to the environmental loss incurred in building the massive Lilly Bayou control structure off U.S. 61.

The commission and the state Department of Transportation and Development decided about two years ago to take on land acquisition. At that time, the only corps-approved mitigation area was about 2,400 acres of land stretching along both sides of the Comite River between La. 64 and Hooper Road.

“About the same time, the realization that the mitigation should have been proceeding came to the forefront. We were informed that we should have acquired 800 acres of land for mitigation by then,” Rietschier said, adding that the corps put new construction on hold, pending the mitigation acquisition.

“When we started that effort, by contacting property owners along the Comite River, some property owners refused to negotiate and talk to us. They said they were not interested in selling at all,” Rietschier said.

The Legislature, in its 2010 regular session, then blocked the commission from using its expropriation powers to obtain land for mitigation.

“That reduced the pool of available land dramatically, so we were caught up in the situation of having to fulfill the federal requirements to continue construction and with a smaller pool of available land to do it with,” Rietschier said.

The commission turned to the area’s congressional delegation to convince the corps to do another environmental assessment of potential mitigation areas, and in July, the corps expanded the mitigation area to include Profit Island and a portion of the McHugh Swamp between Baker and Zachary.

“Our priority today has to be to acquire minimum required mitigation lands necessary to trigger the construction phase again. What we see right now is that Profit Island is the most desirable for acquisition,” he said, adding that it would be sufficient to get the project back into the construction phase.

The commission also is interested in two areas of the old mitigation zone: About 350 acres on the east side of the Comite south of La. 64 and about 400 acres in the Pettit Road area east of Baker, Rietschier said.

The commission now owns land where the canal connects to the Comite River, but the tract is larger than needed for right of way. About 80 acres can be used as mitigation land, he said.

The push to obtain mitigation property does not mean the commission isn’t trying to buy rights of way for the canal, Rietschier said.

“At this time, we are looking at 17 properties along the canal alignment,” he said.

A purchase price has not been set for the island, but Rietschier said the commission and state probably will spend $18 million during the next two years for mitigation, rights of way and the relocation of people who will be displaced by the canal.

“We are going to buy what I call the biggest bang for the taxpayer buck,” Rietschier said.