The gist: Three years since its conception in the wake of the 2016 floods, the Louisiana Watershed Initiative has begun to take shape at a speed that is frustrating flood victims, advocates and local officials. Billed as an apolitical approach to tackling the state’s flood risk, the program has a steep hill to climb above political thorns.
Get caught up, quickly: The Louisiana Watershed Initiative is a statewide program, commissioned by Gov. John Bel Edwards, to rewrite how Louisiana manages flood risk. Dividing the state into eight regions mapped along the state’s major watersheds, the initiative was launched to lift flood management decision-making above politics. A major catalyst for the program is a $1.2 billion grant authorized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development intended to fund transformative projects and programs that make Louisiana less prone to stormwater disaster. Lafayette Parish and the Teche-Vermilion Watershed are part of Region 5, a zone made up of 16 parishes and dozens of municipalities.
A draft action plan will be delivered Thursday. It’s expected to outline “draft projects” and data modeling programs that will enable projects to begin drawing down funds from the HUD grant, according to materials released at a public hearing in Lafayette last week. Allocations will be made to competitive projects in all eight regions over the next decade, with an initial $100 million infusion available in the next year for what LWI officials characterize as “no regrets” projects that don’t threaten to worsen flood conditions in neighboring jurisdictions. Office of Community Development CEO Pat Forbes, an initiative leader, said at the hearing that dredging the Vermilion River could qualify for that first tranche of funding.
Political suspicion has already begun to simmer. Region 5 officials peppered LWI representatives last week about the initiative’s speed, particularly the emphasis on more modeling and study, and how slowly the bulk of the HUD funds will be released. Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter complained that municipalities had been left out of the decision-making process thus far, noting his office wasn’t notified of the hearing, and needled state representatives for dancing around the formality of naming the Acadiana Planning Commission as the Region 5 fiscal agent, the agency responsible for managing the program and distributing funds.
“It is frustrating, but it’s federal money,” APC CEO Monique Boulet says, acknowledging the uphill public relations battle. “HUD has not completed the process [of making the funds available]. It’s still hung up in Washington. I know there’s a natural frustration built in. When you’re gonna use large amounts of federal money it’s slow.”
$400,000 would go to APC to staff a team to manage the region. The funds for “capacity building” come from a separate state pool, not the HUD grant. Boulet says APC has not yet been formally appointed as the Region 5 fiscal agent, but she expects the agency will be. The regional structure developed by LWI outlines around regional planning agencies like APC. Temporary steering committees will be developed over the next few months, which will in turn put permanent management structures in place. Officials in Ascension Parish have bristled at the steering nominating process and the role of the Capital Region Planning Commission, the APC analog for that region.
Locals want dirt moved now. But the program isn’t quite designed for immediate impact beyond the $100 million available in the next year. The bulk of the $1.2 billion fund will be released over the next 10 years as projects come online. LWI project lead Alex Carter projected deploying new watershed models, a network never before created at this scale, in the first two years, distributing half of the HUD funds by year five and completing allocations by year 10. HUD requires 50% of the money to go to projects in the 10 parishes most heavily impacted in 2016, including Region 5’s Lafayette Parish, Vermilion Parish and Acadia Parish. While the grant dollars were allocated by Congress in 2018, the federal guidelines for how the money should be used were only released in August. LWI is now hustling to finalize an action plan by the end of the year to open lines of credit, backed by the HUD funding, in late 2020.
“You need to have organized approach with this statewide,” says Dave Dixon, an advocate with volunteer organization DredgeTheVermilion.org. Dixon and Sierra Club Acadian Group Chair Harold Schoeffler have traveled the Teche-Vermilion Watershed promoting a list of projects they say will immediately reduce risk, the best known of which is dredging the Vermilion River. Dixon concedes the challenges of putting together such a wide-ranging program, but believes the state has dragged its feet in getting to this point. “I totally disagree with them taking this long” to get it together, he says. “They should have had a plan after 2016.”
LWI officials say the program is about systemic change. While high impact projects are part of the ground game, the vision for LWI is to remake how Louisiana deals with flood risk. Funds could be used to “incentivize” municipalities and parishes to rethink patchy and inconsistent development standards that Forbes characterized as a “race to the bottom” of regulations loosened to attract commerce. The higher perch of the regional watershed bodies, ultimately designed by the member parishes in each region, would enable jurisdictions to set more uniform standards, LWI representatives believe.
“Your local government could make that decision right now,” Forbes said last week. “It’s a difficult one to make because your neighbor in the watershed may not make the same decision, and consequently you push that development to your neighbor.”
Acadiana submitted 22 projects totalling $80 million for a FEMA grant issued after the 2016 flood. Only nine projects were selected to receive funding from the $25 million hazard mitigation fund. Of those, only two have been approved by FEMA: a pair of regional detention projects in Youngsville totaling $7.5 million. Shovel-ready projects in that group are eligible to receive matching funds from the HUD pool.
Why this matters: Headline-grabbing grants have shown a financial commitment from local, state and federal agencies to address Louisiana’s flooding problem wholesale, yet the pace of action has continued to frustrate stakeholders. A near miss of devastating rains in East Texas this month are a reminder of the sustained threat the region faces while policymakers work at the speed of government. Whether public buy-in is accomplished will be a big factor in the state initiative’s success and its ability to rise above politics.