Congress has authorized the dredging of the Vermilion River by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the timing of the project is not yet clear.
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy's office confirmed the authorization in a statement to The Current on May 23, saying the Vermilion had been part of the senator's April conversations with the Corps' national and regional leadership about the need for dredging and other flood mitigation projects in Louisiana.
"In my meetings with the Corps, I emphasized the need to fully fund flood mitigation projects so we can expedite construction and give homeowners peace of mind," Cassidy said.
Authorization effectively puts dredging on the Corps' to-do list. Cassidy's office said the Corps will release its 2018 Work Plan later this week, which would be the first indication of a timeline for the Vermilion dredging project.
In a March telephone interview regarding the 2017 survey of the Vermilion, Tracy Falk, an operations manager in the Corps' New Orleans office, indicated it might be 2021 before funding for the project could have become available through normal budget processes.
Actual funding might come sooner than that, as Congress has included disaster mitigation funding in temporary budget resolutions passed in the current session. Still, the timeline remains unclear.
Harold Schoeffler has led the charge for the dredging project. He and a cohort of retired engineers and fellow citizen activists met with U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins in late March to press for emergency funding to dredge the Vermilion. Schoeffler estimates the cost could run in the $30 million range.
"This is testimony to the need for citizens to be actively involved in developing solutions to public issues," Schoeffler said in an interview.
Schoeffler credited public engagement in flooding discussions for prompting the Corps to conduct its May 2017 survey of the Vermilion that revealed significant sedimentation of the river in Lafayette Parish. "In some places, the river had lost as much as 80 percent of its capacity due to sedimentation," he said.
In the wake of the historic August 2016 flood, a movement has emerged pushing for the Corps of Engineers to dredge the Vermilion again from the General Mouton Street Bridge into Vermilion Bay. The Corps conducted a survey of the Vermilion in May 2017, finding that the river has accumulated substantial sediment and silt from upstream since it was last fully dredged in 1957. That created a shallower river bed more prone to flooding.
The worst sediment buildup appears to be in Lafayette Parish where, in some stretches, the river is as little as 2 feet deep. The standard to which it was dredged in the 1950s was a 9-foot-deep, 100-foot-wide channel from the Intracoastal Canal in Vermilion Parish to Lafayette.
The dredging would likely be primarily confined to those stretches of the Vermilion where the channel has lost its 9-foot depth.
René G. Poché, public affairs officer for the Corps' New Orleans District Office, told The Current via email before learning the dredging had been authorized by Congress that the Corps "would dredge the deficient areas to authorized dimensions."
Poché added that a disposal plan for the spoil produced by the dredging would be needed, and that would require the involvement of a "local partner." The spoil would have to be tested for contaminants before a destination for the spoil could be identified. It is not yet clear how the Corps would transport the dredge spoil from the river to its ultimate destination.
Poché told The Current that an action plan to dredge the Vermilion is not yet in place, so there is no cost estimate on the project. Once the cost estimate is developed, Congress would then have to appropriate the money for the project.
Pam Granger, CEO of McBade Engineering and Consulting in Youngsville, believes the Corps will not rush into a project of this scale.
"The Corps takes a very cautious approach," Granger said. "They're going to want to make sure that all impacts are considered, and that people upstream and downstream are not adversely affected by any project they do."