A new flood research center at UL aims to unify fractured flood control efforts

Political splintering and a lack of comprehensive data have hindered flood control efforts in the region since the flood of 2016. New regional watershed management initiatives, from researchers and regional planners, are coming online to supply previously siloed flood control efforts with a shared dataset.

The Louisiana Watershed Flood Center, housed at UL Lafayette, and a proposed regional flood monitoring network are positioned to plug a huge gap in Acadiana’s ability to understand how we flood and how to effectively plan for and respond to those events.

UL announced the formation of the regional flood center on May 4, but the center has been in the works for months. The Watershed Flood Center, led by UL hydrologist Dr. Emad Habib, will seek to fill a gaping void in understanding the characteristics and dynamics of watersheds, land areas that channel water to rivers and tributaries, starting with Acadiana watersheds affected by the August 2016 floods — the Teche-Vermilion, Mermentau and the Atchafalaya.

The new center will be part of UL’s Institute of Coastal and Water Research. According to the university release announcing its formation, the center “will feature a wide range of research specialties from engineering and geosciences to architecture and community design to history and social sciences in its effort to study and understand every aspect of the region’s ongoing flooding issues.”

Habib says the center will be based on the recognition of the fact that “water, of course, doesn’t know [political] boundaries. The best approach is to look at where the water is and how it’s moving, so that we can learn to manage it.”

“The 2016 flood was a regional flood that exposed weaknesses in our approach to flooding,” Habib says. “The flood was a watershed wide event, with impacts upstream and downstream.”

Habib explains that watersheds “are not isolated systems. They have their own boundaries, yet they connect to each other.”

In complex systems like watersheds, regional perspectives are essential.

“What became immediately clear after the flood was that we didn’t understand how these watersheds, this regional system, work,” Habib says. “We didn’t have enough data. We didn’t know how the water flows in that system. Away from the main river, [we] don’t have anything. We had no way of measuring flow rates on the local channels and tributaries that actually flood us. We had no data away from the Vermilion. How can you fix it if you don’t know how it responds to storms when they come?”

In addition to the data dearth, the flood also drove home the shortcomings of what until then had been a highly localized approach to drainage and flooding issues, Habib says.

“A lot of drainage initiatives were driven by single purposes,” Habib offers, citing projects like the Ruth Canal, which in the early 1900s was cut to connect Bayou Teche to the Vermilion for the explicit purpose of providing water for rice field irrigation to Vermilion Parish farmers. “Now the system is multipurpose. Farming is still part of it, but so are flood protection, recreational, navigational uses.”

Emad Habib   Photo by Doug Dugas, courtesy of UL Lafayette

Twentieth century business guru Peter Drucker wrote that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” and Habib believes that rule applies to water management.

“Data and tools are keys to effective planning,” Habib says. “Tools need data, and models need tools in order to evaluate and prioritize projects.”

The urgency about the monitoring project stems from the recognition that until that network is operational, local and regional flood mitigation efforts are pretty much hit or miss.

Habib ventured outside of academia to work with the Acadiana Planning Commission in developing the regional mitigation plan funded by $25 million in federal disaster relief money awarded in August 2017. The impetus for the regional response originated in Acadiana, according to APC’s Monique Boulet, and it was that emerging recognition of the need for a regional response to flood control that drew Habib into the collaboration with local government leaders and, eventually, to the formation of the Watershed Flood Center.

Habib’s recognition of the lack of data led to the plan to deploy 230 monitoring stations, a top priority among the list of nine projects recommended by the APC’s board of directors comprised of the presidents of the seven participating parishes — Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, Iberia, Vermilion, Evangeline, Acadia — plus UL President Joseph Savoie and the CEO of One Acadiana.

None of the APC projects announced in February has actually received funding yet, but Boulet is pushing state government to get funding for the gauge project moving quickly.

Boulet says the gauging project designed by Habib and his colleagues at UL will become the model for a statewide system of water flow monitoring the state wants built. The Department of Transportation and Development has responsibility for the state flood plan. In testimony before the Louisiana Senate Finance Committee in 2017, DOTD officials acknowledged that the state flood plan has not been updated since 1983.

Boulet is pushing for the Edwards administration to award funding for the gauge project out of the newly secured $1.2 billion in federal disaster relief dollars announced in April. The urgency Boulet feels about the monitoring project stems from the recognition that until that network is operational, local and regional flood mitigation efforts are pretty much hit or miss.

Habib explains it this way: “Having a watershed management plan means that you understand the system, know how it behaves, and have a plan to propose interventions to manage the system. In order to do that, you have to have good data, which is something we have not had.”

Boulet, the daughter of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and ex-longtime UL administrator Raymond Blanco, is also committed to bringing the modeling work that will result from having the data produced by the 230-gauge network housed at UL.

“We want to house the model here, to build capacity at the local level. With a model we can do the intense technical vetting of even local projects to ensure that they are increasing the region’s capacity to effectively manage our watersheds,” Boulet says. “We want the model. We want to be able to develop a master plan, address key issues, prioritize and pursue funding.”

“We all need to be more focused on watershed issues but not in a reactive way,” says Habib. “The disaster next time will be different because it will be a different storm.”

Donald Segrera, executive director of the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District, tells The Current that his organization is prepared to enter into a cost-sharing agreement with the APC to ensure that the monitoring network is fully deployed.

“These gauges are essential,” Segrera says. “They are step one so you can determine where the water’s coming from and how much.”

Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux has nominated Segrera’s organization to be the entity that fills another void identified by the flood — a governance void.

The T-VFWD pumps water from the Atchafalaya River north of Krotz Springs in St. Landry Parish and sends it through a series of bayous into the Teche and the Vermilion. The organization was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1966 and serves four parishes through which the Teche and the Vermilion flow — Lafayette, St. Martin, Vermilion and Iberia. St. Landry Parish has a seat on the board because the pumping station is based there and the water from it moves across and down the eastern part of that parish.

Segrera says his board believes the fact that it was chartered under a federal law would make expanding its purview tougher than merely enacting a state law.

“We can’t just up and decide to change our status,” Segrera says. “Our work is too important to our area. The benefits of that work are obvious. We’ve been very successful in handling our mission. To change it is not something you just want to jump into.”

Segrera cautions that a multitude of stakeholders can complicate developing solutions that meet the needs of all comers.

The fundamental problem is that water ignores political boundaries, according to Boulet.

“What we’ve had here are localized responses to issues,” Boulet declares. “Our system doesn’t allow for truly effective watershed planning. The question is how do we make it work.”

Boulet’s pursuit of watershed modeling funding illustrates the poor fit between the way watersheds and political authority in Louisiana work.

The Mermentau watershed includes parts of Acadia, Evangeline, St. Landry, Vermilion and Lafayette parishes, all of which are part of the APC. However, The Mermentau watershed also extends into Allen, Jefferson Davis, Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, none of which are included in the APC.

To the east, the Teche watershed extends into St. Mary Parish, which also falls outside the APC’s purview.

“The work that the APC has undertaken and the work that we will do are about building regional capacity,” Habib says. “We all need to be more focused on watershed issues but not in a reactive way. The disaster next time will be different because it will be a different storm.”

Habib believes his Watershed Flood Center can play an important role in crossing those divides by bringing data and analysis across political boundaries.

“We hope we can contribute to a more organized structure of information sharing that includes government, scientific research and community engagement,” Habib says. “This is how we look at research — to provide sound science that enables government to make good decisions that drive benefits to the public.”