Property purchased for Comite River Diversion Canal mitigation

The Amite River Basin Drainage and Water Conservation District has purchased roughly 89 acres in the McHugh Swamp area to be used for mitigation purposes for the long-delayed Comite River Diversion Canal.

The conservation district, represented by Ben Babin, paid $455,000 to Leonard M. Blanchard and Donna Farley Blanchard of Greenwell Springs. The sellers sold the district two parcels of land—one about 86 acres and the other about 3.2 acres—in a deal that closed earlier this month.

Dietmar Rietschier, executive director of the Amite River Basin Commission, says the parcels are part of right-of-way and mitigation land the district needed to buy in the McHugh Swamp area for the unfinished water control project.

“We’re coming along the canal’s right-of-way, and we’re purchasing the land in anticipation of construction,” he says. The commission purchased nearly 313 acres for mitigation purposes last year. The commission is in the process of acquiring additional mitigation land, Rietschier says.

Congress originally authorized the Comite River Diversion Canal in 1992 in response to The Great Flood of 1983. The 12-mile diversion canal is supposed to provide flood protection to the Lower Comite and Lower Amite River Basins, benefitting areas such as Central, Port Vincent, Denham Springs, Baker and Zachary. The canal would reduce flood stages at areas within the basins by diverting water from the Comite River and three bayous to the Mississippi River.

But a January 2017 Louisiana Legislative Auditor report says the project was supposed to be completed in 2012 at a cost of $153 million. Five years later, it remains undug. That’s because of the slow acquisition of mitigation land and a lack of funding.

The canal is supposed to be financed by a combination of state, local and federal sources. Voters in the benefit area also approved and renewed a tax to help pay for the canal project, Rietscher says, adding that the revenue generated from the tax only covers 10% to 15% of the project’s costs.

“The federal money is the one that’s the problem,” he says. “It never comes in like it’s supposed to.” The auditor’s report also notes that funding and the purchasing of mitigation land by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been insufficient and inconsistent.

“A lack of consistent and sufficient funding for the Corps is the primary reason that the project has not moved forward, resulting in little construction progress since 2000. Only one of the 27 construction components of the project has been completed,” the auditor’s report notes. “Also, funds not spent in the year in which they are appropriated can be reprogrammed, and more than $200 million in federal and state funds are still needed to complete the project.”

The August 2016 flood, which displaced tens of thousands of people, has provided a new momentum for the project at the state and federal levels, Rietschier says, adding that Louisiana’s congressional delegation is seeking funding for the project.

“People are saying this project would have a made a little difference in some areas,” he says.

—Alexandria Burris

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