BATON ROUGE – State lawmakers should reconsider the viability of the Comite River Diversion Canal project, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said in a report based on findings of an audit his office release Monday.
Voters in Livingston, Ascension and East Baton Rouge parishes approved a 10-year, 2.65-mil tax for the project in 2000. They extended the millage another 10 years in 2009, but the project remains stuck in neutral.
A combination of federal, state and local funds have funded the project.
Only one of the 27 components of the project has been completed since 2000. Delays in the project prompted the audit, Purpera said.
“The legislature may wish to direct the Comite River Diversion Canal Task Force to evaluate the visibility of this project, including ways to obtain funding for completion, whether or not to revise the scope and design the project, or whether or not it should be continued,” he said in his recommendation.”
The original estimated cost of the project totaled $153 million in 2012, but would run taxpayers as much as $313 million, based on completion in two or three years, Purpera said in the audit.
A lack of consistent and sufficient funding for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers serves as the primary reason the project has not moved forward, he said.
The audit states that 70 percent of the project value occurs in the last functional element.
“That means that seventy percent of the water diverted through this project will occur only with the completion of the last phase,” Purpera said in his report.
Federal funds not spent in the year in which they are appropriated can be reprogrammed, he said, and more than $200 million in federal are state funds are needed to complete the project.
“The Corps is not allowed to encumber money from previous allocations until it has enough total funding to contract out for larger components of the project,” he said. “Instead, if appropriated funding is not spent by the end of the federal fiscal year, it is re-programmed to other Corps projects.”
The Amite River Basin Commission, the agency commissioned to oversee the project, agrees that the lack of federal funds pose the biggest stumbling block for completion, ARBC Executive Director Dietmar Rietschier said Monday.
“It has to do with the way the system is set up, which allows the addition of more and more projects, although fewer and fewer are completed – and the Corps of Engineers falls in this category,” he said. “New projects eventually get priority over old ones, and eventually the old ones are abandoned.
“It’s a self-defeating process, as costs get higher with a lack of federal funds,” Rietschier said.
DODT Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson, in response to the audit, recommended a re-evaluation of the federal funding for the project.
“If the state determines that the project cannot be constructed in a reasonable timeframe using federal funds, we could pursue advancing the project with state GO bonds or other non-federal funding options,” he said. “Those same funding scenarios could be used to construct other flood projection projects/features identified through numerical model analyses.”
The audit also cites insufficient purchasing of mitigation land by the Corps when it acted on behalf of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Lands, Easements, Right-of-Ways, Relocations and Diversions (LERRDs), a move which delayed the project and resulted in the DOTD taking back LERRDs.
Also, state legislation in 2010 prohibited expropriation of land for the Comite Project, which forced the Corps to identify new mitigation land.
As of Sept. 30, 2016, approximately $133,439,096 in funding had been designated for the project, with $117.26 million already spent and $16.18 million not spent, according to report. The Amite River Basin Commission has held the unspent funds from the local taxes, while the state Department of Transportation and Development has held the capital outlay received in previous years.
It also cites the current construction delay on the U.S. 61 bridge construction and the associated utility relocations which much take place.
The DOTD must relocated utilities – including pipelines and telecommunications lines – at the location, prior to bridge construction.
“However, DOTD has stated that it is concerned that no federal funding will be approved for the project and money spent to relocate utilities will therefore be wasted,” Purpera said in the report.
The project was authorized in 1992 in response to the Great Flood of 1983 that caused an estimated $344 million to Livingston Parish and most of the Greater Baton Rouge area. The 12-mile diversion channel would reduce flood stages at areas with basins by diverting water from the Comite River and three bayous to the Mississippi River.
The canal is planned for an area north of Baker and south of Zachary, but areas including Denham Springs, Port Vincent and Central would also benefit.