Timeline on dredging Vermilion in Lafayette still unknown

Sandbags stacked on top of a levee
Volunteers and neighbors stack sandbags on a levee that was overtopped the Vermilion River in August 2016. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: Both local and federal timelines for dredging the Vermilion River remain unclear, months after millions were again allocated to the project in an emergency meeting. Most of the emergency funding approved in haste by City Council members in May remains unspent, Public Works officials reported during an update at Tuesday’s council meeting. 

Get caught up, quickly: Dredging the Vermilion River has been a rallying cry for flood victims on its banks since 2016. In 2019, $5 million was set aside for LCG to begin work, only to be shelved after questions of its benefit were raised. After flash flooding in May, the City Council again budgeted $5 million for the project. Just over a week later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced $50 million for larger scale dredging. The Corps has billed it as a navigation project, not a drainage project. 

$500,000 has been spent since the May emergency meeting. Crews began clearing floating debris in June. Surveys identified areas of accumulated silt and mud, or “hot spots,” in the river, believed to be clogging up its ability to take increasing volumes of water from major coulee channels. 

LCG does not have a permit to do more. The council and administration moved forward assuming they had a blessing from the Corps to get started. But the Corps put a stop to spot dredging almost as soon as the City Council funded it in May, Guillory said. Public Works Director Chad Nepveaux estimated the timeline could be another four to six months. In May, targeting known shallows already discovered by survey, Nepveaux guessed that crews could begin work in as little as 30 to 45 days. 

“Look, when you guys authorized it, we went,” Guillory said Tuesday. “We’re committed to dredging the Vermilion River, but we’re also committed to not just sitting with our hands underneath us.” 

$50 million in federal appropriations threw the timeline in the air. The Corps’ announcement, eight days after LCG committed its $5 million, put the program in limbo. Officials don’t want to duplicate efforts, and the federal project would likely begin at the mouth of Vermilion Bay and work upward. A project of that scale could be years in the making.

Spot dredging is of questionable benefit. Modeling performed by UL Lafayette showed little benefit of partially dredging the river, particularly at the estimated cost, for either a 10-year storm event like the one that caused major flooding in 2014 or during a 2016-sized event. Downstream, water surface levels would act as a backstop, blocking stormwater from flowing quickly to the bay. Spot dredging would move less dirt. What benefit that might be realized would be limited to the banks of the river and not upstream in Lafayette’s major coulees, the source of most of the city’s flooding.

Millions remain unspent in the emergency drainage program overall. LCG bought two flusher trucks, completed roughly $1 million in ditch cleanup and awarded $646,000 in contracts for “localized flood mitigation projects.” Public Works provided cost estimates for projects in that same category totalling $4.4 million, many with start dates beginning in 2022. The program is paid for almost entirely by the city general fund and was highlighted as a primary cause of its depletion in the upcoming budget year. 

“Not shooting from the hip.” Nepveaux assured council members that LCG is not working blindly. While Lafayette has not completed a comprehensive stormwater management plan since 2016, engineers are working from plans already developed, consultant engineer Pam Granger said Tuesday. Among them was an areawide drainage plan Granger developed just ahead of 2016. Granger has maneuvered Youngsville to be ahead of the curve in pushing bigger detention requirements and aggressively pursuing state hazard mitigation funding for local projects. 

This isn’t about 2016. Granger said LCG’s approach is to address faster and more frequent storms that cause flash flooding. All municipalities in the parish now require detention for 25-year storms, up from five-year requirements that had been the standard for decades. Youngsville has retrofitted some of its larger ponds to those new requirements. May’s flash flooding event flooded 53 homes in Lafayette Parish, according to Public Works’ presentation, and stalled dozens of cars. 

“We’re not here to solve 2016,” Granger said. “We’re here to solve May 17 of this year and May 2014.”