State releases draft plan for spending $1.2 billion watershed grant

The gist: The multi-agency program created by the governor’s office in the wake of the 2016 floods has released a draft action plan outlining, in broad terms, how the state will spend a $1.2 billion grant from the federal government. A 45-day public comment period begins next week.

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. 

The plan doesn’t include specific projects. Rather, it develops guidelines by which projects will be selected and proposes a general distribution of the HUD grant. Here’s how the money breaks down: 

  • Local and Regional Projects and Programs – $571 million 
  • State Projects and Programs – $328 million 
  • Non-Federal Cost Share Assistance – $97 million 
  • Watershed Monitoring, Mapping and Modeling – $146 million 
  • Administrative Costs – $49 million  
  • Watershed Policy, Planning and Local Capacity Assistance – $24 million 

Half the money will be spent in 10 parishes most impacted by the 2016 floods. Three Acadiana parishes are included — Lafayette, Vermilion and Acadia. That segment is spread across the full program budget allocations listed above, meaning not all of that money is earmarked for moving dirt. The action plan identifies 46 other parishes not designated by HUD as areas of increased risk, based on disaster declarations made in those areas during the 2016 floods, both in March, which affected northwest Louisiana, and August. 

There is some concern the program is stacked in favor of large cities. Pam Granger, the consulting engineer for the city of Youngsville, says without enough money to design and study projects that can be competitive, small towns won’t be able to take advantage of it, even in those hard-hit parishes. The plan notes high disaster risk affecting larger populations in coastal parishes, which she says suggests the initiative will likely emphasize projects there. 

“I think it’s going to shift money east. East of the Atchafalaya is going to see the most benefit of this plan,” Granger says.

LWI officials insist this is a starting point plan. Pat Forbes, executive director of the state Office of Community Development and the LWI lead, has stressed the state’s intention to build LWI’s work on local input. Even the eight watershed boundaries set up to organize the initiative’s work are flexible, he told New Orleans CityBusiness this week.

What to watch for: How the plan shapes up from here. State officials say they want to have the draft plan submitted to HUD for review by November, well ahead of the February deadline, to get things moving. That leaves relatively little time for substantive changes to be made. Once approved by HUD, the plan becomes the program’s scaffolding and will set the direction of travel for how funds hit the street.

About the Author

Christiaan Mader founded The Current in 2018, reviving the brand from a short-lived culture magazine he created for Lafayette publisher INDMedia. An award-winning investigative and culture journalist, Christiaan’s work as a writer and reporter has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Offbeat, Gambit, and The Advocate.

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