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UL’s watershed center engaged to complete Vermilion River dredging study; report expected in January

The gist: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has contracted UL’s Watershed Flood Center to model the effect of dredging the Vermilion River. This would complete a long-awaited study — at one time expected to be finished at year’s end — that will determine the benefits and risks of digging out years of accumulated mud and debris that have shallowed […]

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Acadiana residents and leaders frustrated by slow launch of state watershed initiative

The gist: Three years since its conception in the wake of the 2016 floods, the Louisiana Watershed Initiative has begun to take shape at a speed that is frustrating flood victims, advocates and local officials. Billed as an apolitical approach to tackling the state’s flood risk, the program has a steep hill to climb above political thorns.  

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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. 

A draft action plan will be delivered Thursday. It’s expected to outline “draft projects” and data modeling programs that will enable projects to begin drawing down funds from the HUD grant, according to materials released at a public hearing in Lafayette last week. Allocations will be made to competitive projects in all eight regions over the next decade, with an initial $100 million infusion available in the next year for what LWI officials characterize as “no regrets” projects that don’t threaten to worsen flood conditions in neighboring jurisdictions. Office of Community Development CEO Pat Forbes, an initiative leader, said at the hearing that dredging the Vermilion River could qualify for that first tranche of funding. 

A map showing the watershed regions established by the Louisiana Watershed Initiative. Lafayette Parish is in Region 5.

Political suspicion has already begun to simmer. Region 5 officials peppered LWI representatives last week about the initiative’s speed, particularly the emphasis on more modeling and study, and how slowly the bulk of the HUD funds will be released. Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter complained that municipalities had been left out of the decision-making process thus far, noting his office wasn’t notified of the hearing, and needled state representatives for dancing around the formality of naming the Acadiana Planning Commission as the Region 5 fiscal agent, the agency responsible for managing the program and distributing funds. 

“It is frustrating, but it’s federal money,” APC CEO Monique Boulet says, acknowledging the uphill public relations battle. “HUD has not completed the process [of making the funds available]. It’s still hung up in Washington. I know there’s a natural frustration built in. When you’re gonna use large amounts of federal money it’s slow.” 

$400,000 would go to APC to staff a team to manage the region. The funds for “capacity building” come from a separate state pool, not the HUD grant. Boulet says APC has not yet been formally appointed as the Region 5 fiscal agent, but she expects the agency will be. The regional structure developed by LWI outlines around regional planning agencies like APC. Temporary steering committees will be developed over the next few months, which will in turn put permanent management structures in place. Officials in Ascension Parish have bristled at the steering nominating process and the role of the Capital Region Planning Commission, the APC analog for that region. 

Locals want dirt moved now. But the program isn’t quite designed for immediate impact beyond the $100 million available in the next year. The bulk of the $1.2 billion fund will be released over the next 10 years as projects come online. LWI project lead Alex Carter projected deploying new watershed models, a network never before created at this scale, in the first two years, distributing half of the HUD funds by year five and completing allocations by year 10. HUD requires 50% of the money to go to projects in the 10 parishes most heavily impacted in 2016, including Region 5’s Lafayette Parish, Vermilion Parish and Acadia Parish. While the grant dollars were allocated by Congress in 2018, the federal guidelines for how the money should be used were only released in August. LWI is now hustling to finalize an action plan by the end of the year to open lines of credit, backed by the HUD funding, in late 2020.

“You need to have organized approach with this statewide,” says Dave Dixon, an advocate with volunteer organization DredgeTheVermilion.org. Dixon and Sierra Club Acadian Group Chair Harold Schoeffler have traveled the Teche-Vermilion Watershed promoting a list of projects they say will immediately reduce risk, the best known of which is dredging the Vermilion River. Dixon concedes the challenges of putting together such a wide-ranging program, but believes the state has dragged its feet in getting to this point. “I totally disagree with them taking this long” to get it together, he says. “They should have had a plan after 2016.” 

LWI officials say the program is about systemic change. While high impact projects are part of the ground game, the vision for LWI is to remake how Louisiana deals with flood risk. Funds could be used to “incentivize” municipalities and parishes to rethink patchy and inconsistent development standards that Forbes characterized as a “race to the bottom” of regulations loosened to attract commerce. The higher perch of the regional watershed bodies, ultimately designed by the member parishes in each region, would enable jurisdictions to set more uniform standards, LWI representatives believe. 

“Your local government could make that decision right now,” Forbes said last week. “It’s a difficult one to make because your neighbor in the watershed may not make the same decision, and consequently you push that development to your neighbor.” 

Acadiana submitted 22 projects totalling $80 million for a FEMA grant issued after the 2016 flood. Only nine projects were selected to receive funding from the $25 million hazard mitigation fund. Of those, only two have been approved by FEMA: a pair of regional detention projects in Youngsville totaling $7.5 million. Shovel-ready projects in that group are eligible to receive matching funds from the HUD pool. 

Why this matters: Headline-grabbing grants have shown a financial commitment from local, state and federal agencies to address Louisiana’s flooding problem wholesale, yet the pace of action has continued to frustrate stakeholders. A near miss of devastating rains in East Texas this month are a reminder of the sustained threat the region faces while policymakers work at the speed of government. Whether public buy-in is accomplished will be a big factor in the state initiative’s success and its ability to rise above politics. 

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Council readies to dredge the Vermilion, but waits for the Corps of Engineers

The gist: A resolution adopted unanimously by the City-Parish Council Tuesday formally urges action on dredging the Vermilion River. Council members and dredging advocates are now targeting funding and political help while the Army Corps of Engineers completes a dredging study. 

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There is immense political pressure to act. Facing repeated floods and sustained anxiety since August 2016, many residents say little has been done to protect them. Dredging advocates Harold Schoeffler and Dave Dixon have won the ears of officials, most notably U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, and have rallied flood victims and politicos alike to take comprehensive steps to manage regional waters. The tip of that spear is dredging the Vermilion River to remove years of accumulated. 

“The Vermilion River is in a state of emergency,” Dixon told the council Tuesday night. An August navigation depth survey by the Corps of Engineers shows clogging throughout the river in Lafayette Parish, which Dixon believes is the culprit behind increasingly more common flood events. 

LCG needs a permit from the Corps to dredge the river. Before the Corps will OK dredging, it’s studying the impact it would have locally and downriver in Vermilion Parish, where officials have asked for caution. 

The Vermilion has reached flood stage five times in the last year. Indeed, over the last three decades, flood events along the Vermilion have increased dramatically, a phenomenon that correlates with population growth and accompanying development. 

Climate and development appear to play key roles. Some evidence suggests that rain events are getting more intense. Researchers at LSU found that southern Louisiana is getting more so-called “convection showers” — high intensity downpours that burst over shorter intervals, often overwhelming drainage systems. Meanwhile, Lafayette Parish has added acres of rooftops and pavement that shed more water more quickly into drainage channels and, ultimately, the river. 

Public Works Director Mark Dubroc attributes the increase in flood events to those rainfalls. Dubroc has questioned whether dredging will have the impact touted by advocates, arguing earlier this month that there is little evidence to support claims that dredging would have substantial benefit. More to the point, Dubroc is concerned that conclusions are getting ahead of proof. He doesn’t oppose dredging in and of itself, but he questions whether the benefit would be worth the cost. 

“As public works director, I need substantive, identifiable benefit,” Dubroc tells me. 

UL Lafayette researchers are modeling the effect of dredging the river. Responding to the public momentum, Emad Habib, a professor of civil engineering at UL, has used a detailed river model to calculate the efficacy of dredging.

UL’s model ran a scenario in which 20 miles of the Vermilion was dredged at varying depths and widths, including leveling the shoals at Coulee Mine and Rotary Point, identified by the Corps’ August survey. In a simulation of the August 2016 storms, the most extensive dredging modeled reduced water levels by at most half a foot and only at the Surrey Street bridge and Coulee Ile Des Cannes. 

“The benefit is not universal in terms of the location. How much and where you dredge” is what really matters, Habib says. It remains an “open question,” he adds, whether more routine storms would see better results. A 1995 study by the Corps of Engineers suggests that dredging could see greater benefit in smaller storms, estimating a 2-foot reduction in peak water levels after 35 miles of excavation at a cost of around $30 million. Habib’s team will run the smaller storm scenarios through its Vermilion model, which includes more recent data and conditions. 

Despite the unknowns, council members are chasing funding. Councilwoman Nanette Cook proposed a $5 million line item for dredging the river in an amendment to LCG’s upcoming budget. It’s not clear how much dredging that dollar amount would accomplish and where the money would come from. Elected officials are targeting state and federal pools, including a $1.2 billion flood control package authorized by Congress last year. Local dollars could be freed up by shifting funds from a handful of road projects and into stormwater diversion, as Mayor-President Joel Robideaux suggested in his introductory budget. An aide with Higgins’ office told the council earlier this month that the Corps estimated the cost of dredging hot spots — i.e. the shoals at Rotary Point and Coulee Mine — to be $5 million. Reached for comment Wednesday, a Corps spokesman could not identify the source of that figure by press time. 

People are tired of studies, but studies are underway. LCG needs a permit from the Corps to dredge the river and will not receive one until after the Corps’ impact study is completed later this year. At issue is whether dredging upstream in Lafayette Parish could cause saltwater intrusion or loss of marshland in Vermilion Parish, among other complications.

What to watch for: The outcome of further study. It remains disputed among experts what effect dredging might have and what the cost-benefit would be. Come December, some unknowns will be resolved when the Corps completes its study.

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To dredge or not to dredge: Officials, engineers and advocates debate it while Lafayette residents demand it

The gist: Dredging the Vermilion is becoming a political movement in Lafayette, driven by the trauma of repeat flooding events since the catastrophic no-name floods of August 2016. Studies continue as engineers and public officials debate the efficacy of digging out the bayou. 

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“Unclogging the Vermilion River is the first step to solving this problem,” said Paul Baker, headmaster of Episcopal School of Acadiana in remarks to the City-Parish Council Tuesday night. Baker’s home along the St. John coulee flooded in 2016 and again during the June 2019 “rain bomb.” He exhorted the council to take action, worrying that officials may shrug off solutions given the magnitude of the problem. “My wife and I live in fear of the rain,” he said, “and that’s not a healthy way to live in South Louisiana.” 

Many now credit Dredge the Vermilion activists Harold Schoeffler and Dave Dixon for driving the conversation. Dixon and Schoefller were behind the push to stop pumps north of Lafayette Parish ahead of Tropical Storm Barry, which in part lowered the base level of the bayou when joined by a favorable and powerful north wind. It’s not clear which intervention — man’s or nature’s — did most of the work lowering the river’s level. Regardless, the episode has given the pair a lot of credibility among residents. 

Meanwhile, studies and stakeholder meetings continue. The Army Corps of Engineers is studying the Vermilion River before it will commit to dredging the entire bayou through Vermilion Parish. A hydrology and hydraulic study is expected to be completed by December 2019, according to Greg Ellison, an aide to U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins who presented to the council Tuesday. 

There is dispute about what impact dredging would have. Some engineers push back against the narrative that lowering the Vermilion would have the impact clamored for by repeated flood victims. Not all flooding in the parish is related to river back flow. Youngsville City Engineer Pam Granger pointed out at a GOP town hall Tuesday night that flooding in the bedroom community is not connected to the Vermilion. Other neighborhoods in Lafayette itself, like Quail Hollow, reportedly would not benefit from river dredging. LCG Public Works Director Mark Dubroc, exasperated, openly questioned whether digging out decades of muddy bottom would do any good. 

All of this conversation is devoid of technical support,” Dubroc said, drawing derisive cackles from the audience. He noted the Corps of Engineers last dredged the river in the mid-90s to restore navigability, not address stormwater management. However, residents along the bayou, including Councilwoman Nanette Cook, claim that dredging effort stopped water from reaching their homes. 

Let’s talk detention. Some use of detention/retention — mechanisms of holding stormwater and slowly releasing it into coulees and the river — is expected to be part of whatever strategy is implemented long term. Dubroc said older developments, built before retention was required by local government, are in part responsible for the extra runoff. He said 4,000 to 7,000 acres of retention could be needed to do any good. That’s roughly the size of a square bound by Johnston and Ambassador Caffery, Kaliste Saloom and Pinhook. 

Right now, spot dredging is on the table. Pushback from Vermilion Parish and continued studying will delay full dredging. Vermilion Parish officials, also represented in Congress by Higgins’ office, say the move could worsen flooding in the area and cause saltwater to invade the low-lying parish, imperilling seafood commerce. That leaves dredging “hot spots” to be the remaining option within Lafayette Parish. Again, there’s some question whether that approach would deliver the solution desperately wanted by many who live along the bayou. 

Ellison said the council could spot dredge now. He relayed conversations with the corps in which officials offered to help LCG get a permit to spot dredge the river. Council members committed to finding the money in the upcoming budget process. Ellison guesstimated that spot dredging could cost $5 million and that LCG could draw the money down out of $1.2 billion in HUD dollars Congressman Higgins helped secure. 

Congress has authorized dredging the Vermilion. We reported that last year. That essentially means the money has been allocated but not delivered. 

What to watch for: Whether LCG moves forward with an intermediate dredging plan. It’s election season, and political pressure from flooded-over constituents could prevail on local officials to take the step. To be sure, it’s not a sure thing that even spot dredging would make an impact. That would take study. Many residents are tired of studies.

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