More flood control projects in line for federal funding but less than 10% will get money

Local governments around the Capital Region will find out this week which of nearly two dozen flood control projects will receive funding through the Louisiana Watershed Initiative, a state-run flood mitigation program funded with $1.2 billion in federal money.

Local officials say the projects, including several each in East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes, Central and Denham Springs would have gone a long way toward mitigating the floodwaters that inundated homes and businesses around the Capital Region during last week’s heavy rainstorms.

The funding announcement will be made Thursday at a special meeting of the Council on Watershed Management, which determines how the federal money in the Watershed Initiative program is spent.

But local officials should not get too excited about the prospect of a federal windfall. All together, local governments around the state have applied for some $760 million worth of funding for projects that have been identified and already received preapproval from the state under the parameters of the Watershed Initiative program.

But only $60 million will be awarded this week, less than 10% of the total requested, says Pat Forbes, executive director of the Office of Community Development, the state agency that oversees the federal funds.

Additionally, the council this week will award a total of $40 million—$5 million to each of the eight watershed regions in the state—which can be divided up and used for whatever flood control and drainage projects each of the eight areas determines is most needed.

Earlier this spring, the Council on Watershed Management awarded $168 million through the Watershed Initiative to a variety of projects around the state, of which East Baton Rouge Parish received $5 million for dredging and improved drainage at the Baton Rouge Lakes.

But the projects funded from the $168 million were projects that were pre-identified by the state as top priorities and, therefore, did not have to go through the same competitive grant process as the local and regional projects that are up for funding in the first round that will be announced this week.

If it sounds like a convoluted and bureaucratic process it is. But Forbes says the state is following federal guidelines over how best to allocate the money and how to do so in a fair and transparent process.

Developing that process is one reason why, he says, it took so long to start deploying the funds, which were first announced in November 2019.

“We didn’t get the formal grant agreement in place with HUD (the federal agency funding the program) until September and until we had the grant agreement in place we didn’t want to start awarding funding for projects,” Forbes says. “I don’t blame the people at HUD so much as the federal processes in place to make disaster recovery and mitigation funding available.”

East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kelvin Hill says he is optimistic all five of the parish’s projects, which include improvements to Dawson, Jones and Ward creeks, will receive funding.

“We’ve already received preapproval for them,” Hill says. “These are our top priority projects.”

Forbes says the 90% of projects that are not funded this week will stay in line for future rounds of funding that will be announced in the coming months. He also notes that the state will continue to identify its own priority projects in each of the eight regions and award funding to those.

“As we saw last week, things are not going to get better, so we cannot keep spending money on flood risk reduction in the same way we have before,” Forbes says. “That is the whole idea behind the Louisiana Watershed Initiative. It’s about changing the way we manage flood risk in this state—on this watershed regional basis with tools and modeling so people can make transparent decisions.”