EDITOR'S NOTE: The following story is a breakdown of a multi-hour interview with Gravity Drainage District 1 and their engineer of record, Quality Engineering. Segments of the story will be broken into their own features digitally in the future.
In many cases, water moves slower through pre-determined drainage routes than most would believe.
For instance, a drop of rain that hits Gray’s Creek in the north will take 14 hours to reach the Amite River - and that’s without blockages or debris issues, which can slow the flow down considerably.
That slow movement is akin to finding funding outside the normal sources of revenue for large scale projects drainage projects, but its the path taken by Gravity Drainage District 1 after the Great Flood of 2016.
The district is looking for more information, and more control, over their service area which contains 102 total miles of channels from Amite Church Road in the north to near Port Vincent in the south.
That’s 35,830 acres which contains:
- 18% of the total ditches and canals in Livingston Parish
- 41% of the Livingston Parish population
- 16 schools, educating 8,000 students
- 25,560 homes
- 29,730 total structures
- 13 governmental buildings
The district is funded by a 1/2-cent sales tax and a 4.43-mill property tax, the latter of which is up for renewal on this fall’s ballot. The two funding mechanisms generate about $2.5 million per year, with the 1/2-cent sales tax coughing up the lion’s share at $1.75 million.
The initial purpose of the funding was to drive maintenance of the ditches and canals. That work is still being done by three crews - one north, one city of Denham Springs, and one south. The district has 18 full-time employees, and nine ‘seasonal workforce’ employees.
If residents in the area are having a maintenance issue, they can call the district office at 225-664-5827.
In the wake of the Great Flood, however, as well as isolated rain events of late that produce heavy rainfall in a short amount of time, the Gravity Drainage board decided to try to break out of the mold of ‘just maintenance.’
In order to achieve that goal, several puzzle pieces had to come together with some still to be fit.
First was the two-part human element - the drainage infrastructure currently in place was substandard and, in many cases, drainage was handled - especially in unincorporated areas of the parish - like the wild west.
Jamie Seal, an engineer with Quality Engineering, said that many of the culverts throughout the district were at least 50 years old - 20 years past the acceptable useful life. Both the Great Flood and recent, heavy rains have exposed that poor infrastructure and planning.
“(The Great Flood) also opened the door for Hazard Mitigation Grant funding. I told the Drainage board that it was both an unfortunate, and fortunate, thing to happen,” Seal recalled.
Planning, enforcement of those plans, as well as the willingness of developers and private citizens to ignore those plans was the other human-based issue.
Seal cited three issues off Dunn Road, a current Livingston Parish ‘hot spot’ for drainage that was covered in nearly two feet of water due to the sudden rains from the remnants of Hurricane Barry.
Not only were subsurface catch basins, and culverts, not large enough to handle the increased flow of water through the area due to development, both a developer and a land owner decided to take some situations into their own hands.
“(The District) was up there cleaning out a creek bed when they noticed another ditch,” Seal explained, “after asking the land owner about it, he told the crew he just... dug his own.
“This was a big ditch.”
Seal said the ditch was created to help drainage on property where the owner had built homes. It was large enough to create a flow issue that pushed the original creek out over Dunn in the instances of high water.
The engineer also discussed the ‘Summerfield’ subdivision, off of Dunn Road. According to Seal, the second filing was never properly surveyed - leading to a retention pond in the wrong place, and a ditch that didn’t drain any of the water out of the subdivision.
The ditches along Dunn also have several crushed concrete or gravel culverts, which block water flow.
And these three issues were just on Dunn Road, which encompasses just a few percent of the total land representation for the district.
While Seal admits there is an ordinance that says the parish reserves the right to remove or replace culverts of that type, he doesn’t know which part is harder - finding funding for removals, discussing the issue with the parish and finding the labor for it through the Department of Public Works, or communicating with homeowners.
Which led to another issue - getting on the same page with governmental entities who had immediate jurisdiction in the area. The second puzzle piece was establishing a chain of communication between the federal government, the state, the parish, and gravity drainage itself.
“This... hadn’t been done before,” Seal said, throwing his hands up with a grin.
An example used was a part of the Clinton Allen Watershed - which is just west of Highway 16 around Magnolia Beach Road. After the Great Flood, the state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) came to replace a culvert on Magnolia Beach. The state used current materials and standards - including a culvert twice as large and smooth concrete, as opposed to corrogated metal - to replace the drainage implement.
The result - nearly three times the water was forced down stream, covering Old River Road as the water escaped from the subsurface drainage.
It didn’t help, either, that along the Clinton Allen Ditch water was forced to take a u-turn before it could enter it’s designated drainage pond to flow into the Amite River.
The downstream infrastructure was ill-prepared for that change, causing District 1 and Quality to approach all parties responsible for drainage and ask that any changes made pass through a full line of communication, from top-to-bottom, before implementation or construction.
Part of that piece of the communication and partnership expansion was to develop a cooperative endeavor agreement with Denham Springs to maintain the larger canals and drainage ditches as part of the overall flood plain, instead of skipping over the area which contains several major arteries of Gray’s Creek including Miller’s Canal and Sawgrass Creek.
Gray’s Creek is the third major piece of the puzzle as the most major focus of the drainage district:
- Located in the western portion of the parish, with 1/3 of the basin north of I-12
- The watershed drains roughly 30 square miles
- The creek discharges into the Amite River approximately a 1/2 mile north of Highway 42 in Port Vincent
- The basin is, on average, 2 miles wide and a total of 15 miles in length
It was Gray’s Creek, and its study, that kicked off the District’s attempts to move past ‘just maintenance.’
Completed in 2016, the Gray’s Creek Watershed study became the umbrella under which all of the current Gravity Drainage District 1 projects - outside of maintenace - fall.
Completed in July 2016, the study of the Gray’s Creek Watershed came just before the tragedy in August of 2016. The study found elevations, issues with the canal, and also delivered true wetlands delineations throughout the watershed.
“That way we know where to build,” Seal said. “It’s a two-way street, wherein we can fight for a developer if the study said an area was in fact not a wetland, or we can say ‘you can’t build here.’”
The study also led to the development and implementation of water level gauges for the creek, which let the district know if a certain rain event caused a problem, or if there’s a blockage.
“If we have a lot of water at one gauge, and it’s still low at another - we know we have a problem in between and the district can address it,” Seal explained.
With Gray’s Creek study in place, that opened the door for the subprojects and grant funded projects to occur. Projects to occur in the immediate future, funded through HMGP, are:
- Gray’s Creek Channel Widening
- Dixon Creek Channel Widening
- Gray’s Creek Bridge Replacement - Highway 1033
- Gray’s Creek Bridge Replacement - Scivicque Road
- Allen Bayou Relief Improvements
- Royal Birksdale and Stephenson Drive Culvert replacements
Projects to occur in the immediate future, funded through Resource Conservation, are:
- Clinton Allen Ditch Improvements
- Beaver Creek at Highway 16 as well as Magnolia Beach
- Colton Creek Improvements
- Millers Creek
- Allen Bayou at 4H Club Road
- Gray’s Creek Improvements
The problem, Seal said, is that like water funding is... slow. Check boxes have to be knocked off, and then the district plays the waiting game. He understands that citizens are, for the most part, used to dealing with drainage on their own so with the introduction of strict rules, timelines, and costs property owners are understandably frustrated.
In the mean time, crews continue to try to solve smaller problems around the flood plain when homeowners call in.
“This is about getting water flowing,” Seal said, “you start in the south, because that’s where the waters going, and get that clear and then move upstream.”
But, Seal wanted to remind citizens in the district of two important notes.
“We’re only dealing with 25 year storms here - that’s what regulations are now with the parish and the city for drainage requirements,” Seal explained.
“We can’t help what the Amite River does, and we can’t fight coastal erosion - and those affect the Gray’s Creek flood plain.
“This work will help get water out as quickly as possible - clear roads, ditches, creeks, and property. It won’t stop 2016.”