A push by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration to redirect $100 million in federal aid to a handful of parishes around the Amite River Basin would eliminate a $270-million funding opportunity for the rest of the state, if approved by federal officials.
The state Office of Community Development is proposing a change to the Louisiana Watershed Initiative that would set aside $100 million exclusively for projects in parishes in the newly created Region 9 watershed district, which covers major parts of East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Livingston and St. Helena parishes plus slivers of Ascension, Iberville and St. James parishes.
The change would entirely eliminate the LWI’s third and final round of local project funding and leave cities that were holding out for a piece of that $270 million high and dry since chances to apply for previous rounds of funding have long passed.
It would also leave local governments without a chance to seek funding for projects that are waiting for vetting by the regional drainage models funded at the creation of the LWI in 2019, which remain unfinished in most of the state’s watershed districts.
“We were all kind of waiting on the models,” says Jessica Cornay, a Lafayette Consolidated Government engineer who represents Lafayette Parish on the Region 5 watershed district’s steering committee. “Some of the other parishes, I didn’t even apply in Round 2 because I don’t have enough information to make it a competitive grant application.”
The second round of funding was reserved for projects that primarily impacted low-to-moderate income areas, Cornay says, meaning many communities didn’t have projects that qualify. Should the third round disappear, they’ll have no more opportunities to tap into what was billed as transformative federal investment.
The state’s proposal follows repeated criticism from leaders in the Amite River area of the initiative’s distribution of funding for some 56 local and regional projects to date.
“I think when you look at what’s been done and you ask yourself the question, ‘What were the people that flooded? What projects have been done or are even in the pipeline to mitigate the impacts of another 2016 flood? Name them.’ So, that’s the crux of the issue,” Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment said as the Ascension Parish Council considered suing the LWI over funding distribution in July.
“Really, aren’t we responsible for protecting these residents that flooded, the ones that are gonna flood in the future?” he continued. “Where does that responsibility fall? It falls with elected officials.”
The Amite River basin area was heavily impacted in the devastating August 2016 floods that swept across South Louisiana, and 74% of the homes affected by the flood were in the seven parishes covered by the new Region 9 watershed district, according to the state.
Projects in the new Region 9 district have already received nearly $30 million of the $200 million awarded by the LWI so far, more than any other watershed statewide aside from Region 5, which covers 19 parishes, including Lafayete, from Alexandria south to Morgan City in the east and Sweet Lake in the west.
Half of the LWI’s $1.2 billion federal aid package must be spent in the parishes most impacted by the 2016 floods, which includes three of the parishes in the new Region 9, plus Acadia, Lafayette, Ouachita, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Vermilion and Washington parishes.
The state’s push to eliminate Round 3 funding and dedicate another $100 million to the Amite River area will require approval from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Here’s how the $270 million in Round 3 fund would be redirected:
- $100 million to the new Region 9 watershed district
- $60 million to previously funded projects for inflation
- $110 million to pending Round 2 funding awards, to total $225 million (Applications closed this spring)
Lafayette Congressman Clay Higgins urged HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge to change course, criticizing the state’s proposal as “devoid of requisite scientific support” in a letter last week. HUD is currently reviewing the state’s plan, and it has not released a timeline for its decision on whether the plan may be implemented.
“We’re all kind of shocked by losing the fabulous project trajectory that we were on,” says Cornay. “It just feels like we’ve stopped midway, and I’m worried that we won’t work as a region or as a major watershed when we’re stopped mid-cycle.”