BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - More than $250 million earmarked for flood control projects in East Baton Rouge Parish are sitting in Washington, D.C., waiting to be unlocked by local government.
The projects would improve drainage throughout 66 miles of channels in the area, and could help prevent flash flooding similar to that which wrecked dozens of cars and Baton Rouge homes during the first week of June.
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“These are canals that run through our neighborhoods,” U.S. Rep. Garret Graves said. “If we can improve the capacity and speed up the flow of water through those canals, then it’s going to get water out of our streets and yards much faster.”
The $255 million is part of a $1.4 billion package Congress passed in 2018, which fully funded the Comite River Diversion Canal project, but to complete this particular plan, the state or parish must fork over $65 million to unlock the federal money.
“No one is sitting on $65 million to fund something,” city-parish chief administrative officer, Darryl Gissel, said. “It just doesn’t exist, no matter the city you’re in or the governmental entity you are in.”
But Graves says the feds will not collect the money until the projects are completed, and the debt can be paid back over 30 years. That means the city-parish or state would only be on the hook for around $2 million each year, beginning sometime in the mid-2020s.
“You don’t have to have all $65 million identified,” Graves said. “It’s most appropriate, considering the vulnerability of these dollars, to come up with a short-term funding strategy and then immediately work on the long-term strategy.”
Graves says “vultures are circling” the money, hoping the state will boggle the plan so they can swoop the funds for other projects in other states. It’s the only project federally funded in 2018 and earmarked in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers division that does not have a local partnership agreement signed, he says.
Graves, who negotiated the deal, contends there is “no immediate cost-share” requirement, aside from smaller real estate costs associated with buying up land to widen creeks.
Gissel says the process is not that simple, and argues the city-parish should identify the money first before it advances with plans.
“Sixty-five million dollars is a lot and it’s not an amount of money you can just pull out of general operating budget,” Gissel said. “The federal dollars in all these cases have huge requirements that have to be met, so we’re working aggressively to find those matching dollars in every way we can.”
“We need to be very conscious about the $65 million and make sure we do have a strategy to secure those funds,” Graves said, acknowledging the city-parish’s prudence. “When you start talking about city finances 34 years from now, you have a high degree of uncertainty.”
Here are the planned projects, according to the Corps of Engineers:
- Jones Creek and tributaries (Designed to convey a 50-year event): Clearing and snagging 3 miles and structurally lining 16 miles with reinforced concrete
- Ward Creek and its tributaries (Designed to convey a 10-year event with a portion to convey a 50 year event): Clearing and snagging 14 miles of channel and concrete lining
- Bayou Fountain (Designed to convey a 10-year event): Clearing and widening 11 miles of channel
- Beaver Bayou (Designed to convey a 25-year event): Widening 8 miles of existing earthen channel and improvements to existing culverts and bridges
- Blackwater Bayou and its main tributary (Designed to convey a 10-year event): Widening 13 miles of existing earthen channel and improvements to existing culverts and bridges
Graves says he’s working with the mayor’s office, the governor, and other local officials to find the money as soon as possible.