DENHAM SPRINGS — Inclusion of the Comite River Diversion Canal project in a bill the U.S. Senate passed Thursday brought local officials a sense of cautious optimism that it may soon come to fruition.
No money has been tagged to the project, but inclusion of the bill in the package renews prospects of funding one month after the historic August flood, which now ranks as the worst in modern time for Livingston and surrounding parishes.
Governor John Bel Edwards, who has pleaded for help from Capitol Hill during two trips to Washington D.C. in so many weeks, has said he will ask Congress to approve funding to complete the project.
Republican Senators Bill Cassidy and David Vitter were among the supporters of the Water Resources Development Act, which passed on a 95-3 vote. Vitter, who is in his final months in the Senate, added the project to the bill.
Vitter also serves on the state committee that has overseen the work on the CRDC. He has been outspoken about the lack of work on the project, which has been on the drawing boards since 1985 – two years after the previous benchmark flood event.
Louisiana Congressman Garret Graves, meanwhile, said he and other members of the Louisiana delegation have pushed steadfastly for completion of the project for several years.
He said requests had fallen upon deaf ears from the Army Corps of Engineers – which will build the project – and the White House.
“To some degree, there has been a lot of “I told you so” to the Corps and the White House,” said Graves, a Republican from Baton Rouge. “We’ve been advocating for this project since I got in Congress, and I’ve told them the delays would cost more than building it.
“The lack of action is costing more money than if people would’ve done their jobs,” he said.
Amite River Basin Commission executive director Dietmar Rietschier, whose office oversees the project, considers the Senate vote a step forward.
“It was a major accomplishment on the part of our delegation to get this into the bill, so to speak,” he said. “It’s just a step, but a necessary step – it wouldn’t go forward without this first.”
State Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, said federal attention to the project was long overdue.
“All I can say is that it’s about time,” she said. “They’re a day late and we’re about $200 million short.”
Hodges has headed a state joint subcommittee to oversee progress on the project.
The move comes across bittersweet for Hodges, whose home near Watson received more than 4 feet of water during the flood.
“I’ve said repeatedly over the last three years that a catastrophic flood wasn’t a matter of “if, “ but “when,” she said. “Time ran out and we got a flood worse than any of us could have imagined.”
She also expressed anger that it took a flood with $10 billion in damages -- thus far – to further discussion on completion of a $200 million project.
“It makes me very upset that it took a catastrophic flood to get this to happen,” Hodges said. “We had most of the project done, but nobody had interest in finishing it until now.”
Hodges said she hopes Congress will allocate the money to finish the project before the post-flood struggles lead to an exodus from Livingston Parish and the rest of the Greater Baton Rouge area.
“We’ve gotten the attention of President Obama, and he’s now pushing for the project,” she said. “We’ve got to get this project built.”
Rietschier also agrees that the flood returned discussion of the project to the front burner.