The gist: Pumps that feed fresh water into the Vermilion River were stopped days ahead of Tropical Storm Barry’s landfall. Combined with a lucky north wind, ad hoc flood control efforts lowered the Vermilion by more than a foot, potentially avoiding major flood damage along the bayou.
The river sat 18” lower than normal when the rains started. Consequently, the river’s crest — the flood height, essentially — was close to 2 feet lower than projected ahead of the storm. You can thank the wind and the folks at the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District for that, according to regional officials and local advocates. Harold Schoeffler, a Sierra Club advocate who has pushed regional politicos to get the Vermilion River dredged, lobbied the freshwater district to step in and stop the pumps. On July 8, the district followed through, a step it normally takes ahead of major storms, but not with this much forewarning.
“It wasn’t something we haven’t always done in the past,” Teche-Vermilion Executive Director Donald Sagrera tells me. “It’s just that this time we had the warning.”
It’s tough to say how much damage was prevented. Flooding is localized and hydrology can be complicated. Sagrera gives much more credit to the wind than the intervention, but Acadiana Planning Commission Chairman and St. Landry Parish President Bill Fontenot, who had a hand in authorizing the move, says stopping the pumps likely made a big difference for homes along the bayou.
“The stages would have been higher,” Fontenot says of conditions if the freshwater district had not moved. “I think overall the elevations in the system would have been higher. As much as a foot. That could have impacted who knows how many homes and how much property damage.”
What difference does a foot make? If you’re along the river, a lot. It only takes a couple of inches to ruin a home. And to be sure, homes still flooded in areas around Lafayette Parish. Whether dredging the Vermilion, thereby lowering the river long term, is the right solution is a question Fontenot believes ought to be studied. Widening the channel could have unintended consequences that worsen flooding in other areas. “It’s a lot more complicated,” Fontenot tells me.
Flooding here and flooding there. How to manage stormwater will vary by address. While lowering the Vermilion impacts the water level of upland coulees and ditches, it’s not a slam dunk that fixing the Vermilion will save homes that flood from overtopped coulees. There’s even some question whether dredging the Vermilion would prevent flooding whatsoever, given the sheer volume of water entering drainage systems from intensifying rainfall and development runoff.
“There’s no the drainage problem. There are several,” UL geosciences professor Gary Kinsland tells me. Kinsland has studied the Vermilion for years, authoring a paper on the impact of urbanization. Kinsland calls the preventative measures taken by the fresh water district a “no-brainer,” but warns against angling for a singular solution. “There is no silver bullet,” he says.
Why this matters. Stormwater management is everything in Lafayette now, and we’re facing down an election season. While we’ve begun to address the problem regionally, the anxieties created by the floods of 2016 reopen with each looming storm. How to fix the problem will frame much of this year’s political debates, and tackling the Vermilion is a big part of that discussion.