Watershed initiative isn’t just about the money, state officials say

The gist: While the Louisiana Watershed Initiative’s $1.2 billion federal grant may be attracting the most attention, reps with the program say its real aim is changing how Louisiana lives with water. Program lead Pat Forbes says the initiative is prepared to earn buy-in from a beleaguered public who want dirt moved immediately. 

Get caught up, quickly: The Louisiana Watershed Initiative is a statewide program, commissioned by Gov. John Bel Edwards, to redefine 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.  

“$1.2 billion is not a tenth as much as we need to address flood risk in the state, which is why we’re using it to leverage a new approach,” Forbes tells The Current. Forbes is the executive director of the Office of Community Development, the state agency responsible for the HUD grant. 

Local officials want projects funded fast. And it doesn’t look like the program is designed for speed. In many cases, projects may not be funded for several years, moving further and further away from the catastrophic flooding in March and August of 2016 that spurred the initiative. At a hearing in September, parish and municipal representatives from Region 5 peppered LWI about releasing funding for projects in their communities, frustrated with the initiative’s long time table and emphasis on further study. 

“Their concerns, their fears are very well founded in the sense that until you can feel and see and touch a thing it shouldn’t really give you a great deal of comfort,” Forbes says of the initiative’s deliberative rollout. The program has stalled while waiting for federal rules to be issued on how the HUD grant will work. That guidance was delivered in August. 

A draft plan for how to spend the money was released earlier this month. The document lays out basic guidelines for how the LWI will work within the funding rules attached to the HUD grant, which was authorized by Congress in 2018 but won’t be released until next year. Major themes in the plan emphasize developing science and engineering first and building regional governing structures within watersheds to promote projects and even-out land use planning practices. The Department of Transportation and Development is in charge of contracting firms to build watershed models that can test project concepts and determine impacts up and downstream. Roughly 10% of the HUD grant will go to modeling, which is projected to be completed in the next two years. 

Critics have raised concerns that the money will pass small towns by. Sea level rise related to climate change and coastal erosion are identified as the most probable threat to the state in the action plan, and that hazard affects coastal parishes the most. The draft action plan points out that 39% of Louisiana’s population lives in that zone, raising the possibility those areas would see the most benefit from the initiative’s spending.

“Our process is to get funds out there to reduce risk,” Forbes says. “We won’t accomplish that if we let the money and resources go to those most populated areas.” 

There’s a natural tension between the new approach and how things have historically been done. Forbes says state disaster funding has typically been allocated piece-meal, addressing specific needs as they arise. Moving away from project-specific funding is designed to make the process less political and encourage collaboration. But that approach could cause friction. 

“This a break from the way we used to [allocate funding],” Forbes says.  “So consequently it’s completely understandable that people at the local level, who are facing a brand new paradigm, are somewhat disconcerted over the process. I’m not concerned we won’t ultimately get folks into the fold.” 

What’s next? Two immediate funding opportunities will be available in the next few months. First, the state will distribute $400,000 to each region to build staffing and capacity for project and policy development, money that will likely go to regional planning agencies like the Acadiana Planning Commission. Next, LWI will issue the first $100 million tranche out of the HUD grant for “no regrets” projects. Each region will see $5 million out of that pot, with the remaining $60 million distributed competitively. Forbes says LWI will outline the criteria in a grant notice later this year.

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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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