FRENCH SETTLEMENT – The Laurel Ridge Levee extension could bring more water to the east bank of the Amite River, but other issues exacerbate flooding in south Livingston Parish, state and local officials said Thursday.

Dredging of the Amite River and a moratorium on development in low-lying areas needs to take priority in flood management, officials told a capacity crowd of more than 80 residents during an outdoor public hearing at the French Settlement Pavilion.

French Settlement held the public hearing for residents to voice their concerns to state officials over Ascension Parish’s proposed levee extension which would bring anywhere from three to six inches of additional water to flood-prone areas along the Livingston Parish side of the Amite River.

The hearing came one month after Livingston Parish Layton Ricks filed a lawsuit against Ascension Parish, the state of Louisiana, the state Department of Natural Resources and the state Office of Coastal Management in hopes of a preliminary or permanent injunction on construction of the levee extension.

Ricks sought legal action after the Ascension Parish government did not honor his request to prove that the project – on the drawing board since 1982 – would not have a detrimental effect on the Livingston Parish side of the Amite River, which includes the villages of French Settlement and Port Vincent.

State Sen. Eddie Lambert, R-Prairieville, who represents both Ascension and Livingston parishes, said plans call for floodgates that will allow water into the levee system until a certain level, so that it does not pose an adverse effect to the east side of the river.

The final decision on the effect will come from the 19th Judicial District Court, which will serve as a neutral party in the case, Lambert said.

“The problems we have are a very complicated issue, and there is not one silver bullet that will fix it,” Lambert said. “The suit is in Baton Rouge, so it means with those experts, there won’t be any bias.”

Regardless of the outcome, both parishes need to work toward a plan to regulate development, he said. Both parishes have experienced a surge in population, which has triggered a boom in subdivision development.

“Every subdivision is curb-and-gutter, small lots where water would eventually soak into the ground,” he said. “As water barrels down on us through concrete ditches in Baton Rouge, it will create problems, it has to be disbursed.”

French Settlement resident Roland Smith asked Lambert how one parish could implement a project knowing it will adversely affect another.

Lambert said he doubted that Ascension Parish would deliberately harm a neighboring parish but harped on the need for regional planning rather than parish by parish.

“The pastures that used to be in Watson aren’t pastures anymore – they’re houses, which means water comes on you and comes on me,” he said. “The levee extension will put some water into the swamp, but ultimately we need a master plan and we need people to stick to it.”

French Settlement resident Lynn McMorris, who lives in the flood-prone Cypress Point area, said the parishes need to take a strong stand on overdevelopment.

“It would seem that protecting the floodplain is imperative," she said. "If we have to wait 40 years with the Comite River Diversion Canal project, our battle will be lost," she said. 

The lack of dredging along the Amite River since the construction of the diversion canal in the 1950s has also hampered the flood issue, according to French Settlement Emergency Manager Lawrence Callendar.

The control structure to divert flood water down a diversion canal is located at French Settlement, and connects to Blind River, emptying into Lake Maurepas. Eighty percent of the river’s flow was designed to flow through the main channel and 20 percent over the weir control structure into Amite River.

Livingston, East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes agreed to a pact to maintain and repair the Amite Diversion upon completion, but all three reneged, he said.

“Today, due to neglect, the reverse is true with 20 percent of the river’s flow through the main channel and 80 percent through a sunken Weir Control Structure to the Diversion Canal,” Callendar said. “The solution requires adequate channel capacity to be provided to transfer floodwaters away from areas now subject to damage.

“A flood plan is put to wise use when its objectives are compatible with both the risks of human life and property from flooding and the risks to floodplains’ natural functions posed by human activities,” he said. “In each flood event, we are impacted by the floodplain’s neglected maintenance through failed contract agreements by our parishes to the U.s Government and lastly, poor floodplain management practices.”

Pat Landry, an assistant deputy secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said an executive order Gov. John Bel Edwards signed earlier this year will bring together the DOTD, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, and the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to look at the watershed across a regional level.

The DOTD contracted with Virginia-based Dewberry Engineering to survey the Amite River Basin and create aerial topography to determine a plan for improved flood management.

“Once you have the model, you can look at dredging scenarios and look at flood control levels that can reduce flood,” Jerri Daniels of Dewberry told the audience. “It would the pilot for the entire state to reduce watersheds.”

A regional approach could solve much of the flood control issue through repairs of the weir at the Amite River, French Settlement resident Phil Daigle said.

“The mouth needs to be dredged, but it won’t do anything without the weir being dredged,” he said.  

It would also help future cleanup efforts of the area waterways, said Mark Harrell, director of the Livingston Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Livingston Parish is currently in the process of a $3.5 million debri cleanup of the Tickfaw River going down to West Colyell and ending at Buddy Ellis Road between Denham Springs and Walker.

The shift of $50 million from the Cypress Point mitigation to the cleanup will also help Livingston Parish on cleanup projects, Harrell said, a project along the Amite River would likely fare better from a regional standpoint.

“If we take that approach, we’ll have a better chance on it,” he said.

The flood control issue has been a constant battle for Lambert and state Rep. Clay Schexnayder.

“What we see in this area is something that has gone on all our lives,” Schexnayder said. "Water is silted in and when it can’t come out, it backs up on us.”

A greater amount of public input and a more aggressive stand on the local level could give the area more leverage, said French Settlement resident Robert Clouatre, a retired Ascension Parish School Board Superintendent.

“It’s not going to be governed by the state and the state wants nothing to do with it,” he said. “It’s going to be up to your local councils who say we don’t want this go to any further.”

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