The Baton Rouge flood canal may be a reality.

Nearly three months ago, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said construction on the Baton Rouge region’s biggest flood control project would likely to run out money at the end of the year and grind to a halt. The federal agency had determined that the cost to build the 12-mile canal to divert Amite River Basin flood water to the Mississippi River would cost nearly twice as much as expected, rising to almost $1 billion. But, on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves announced that the agency’s top military and civilian leadership recently committed to him to find a funding strategy that will cover the $476 million shortfall and keep work going without delay on the Comite River Diversion Canal. “So while the Corps of Engineers’ new cost estimates are concerning, our commitment to finish this project is absolutely there. It’s absolutely strong,” Graves said. “I’ve spoken to everyone from the top general in the Corps of Engineers to the top political appointee in charge of the Corps of Engineers,” Graves added, “and have received commitments from all of them: This project will not be delayed any further. They will not slow down contracts, and we’ll continue working together to identify the remaining resources that are needed to get this project finished.”

Decades of talk and years of inaction.

The canal had been talked about for decades but languished for years in the absence of federal and state funding — despite local residents kicking in millions in local property taxes over 20 years — only to see public ire, political interest and new federal money appear after the devastating floods of 2016. Graves spoke Thursday at a news conference near Zachary at one of the canal construction sites to highlight the work already underway under preexisting contracts and funding. Long-reach excavators moved large pieces of stone “rip-rap” into an already dug section of the canal behind Graves. The area is between La. 964, or old Scenic Highway, and Cypress Bayou and south of Zachary’s commercial zone. Graves said federal officials hope to tap reserve funds that had already been set aside for possible cost overruns and, he said, were sufficient to keep work going. He didn’t immediately share details about how the funding strategy would work and expected to meet again with Corps officials. “We hope by the end of next week, we have a funding strategy in place, which will include tapping into those reserve funds, as well as potentially looking at other sources,” he said. Graves was asked if the project might need money from non-federal sources to help finish the work. In response, he pointed out that when he got what was then thought to be full funding for the canal in 2018, he received a commitment that the dollars would be 100% federally funded. “I’ll tell you that’s our intention, to pursue that goal,” he said.

Committee hearings put to good use.

Graves said he garnered the funding commitments during a recent congressional hearing with the agency’s top brass and in a conference call Wednesday with Lt. Gen. Scott Spellman, chief of engineers and commanding general of the Corps, its top military officer. Also, earlier on Thursday, a key internal Corps of Engineers’ panel in Washington, D.C., that vets the costs of agency projects running over budget reaffirmed commitment to the diversion canal, Graves said. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials have blamed the cost overruns on both inflation, which has significantly boosted material and labor costs, and design changes since the last estimates were made in 2017 based on preliminary plans. Corps officials said the previously unfunded higher costs would have affected the six final pieces of the 12-mile diversion canal, including three large canal-digging segments and the main structure that diverts Comite River water into the canal. The canal is supposed to route high water from the Comite — which drains Baker, Zachary and Baton Rouge — west to the Mississippi River to reduce flooding in the Amite River Basin. Corps officials have compared the project to building a man-made river the size of the Arkansas River. 

The cost of the canal has doubled.

A new estimate put the canal’s total cost at $907.8 million, up from the $484 million for land, wetlands offsets, and construction since the project’s inception. Talked about since the 1960s, the diversion canal took conceptual form after the historic 1983 flood and, by the 1990s and 2000s, began to get some funding from the Corps, the state and local taxpayers to incrementally address pieces of the project, including land purchases. Before the latest round of construction started in 2019, the only other piece of the diversion to be built was the Bayou Lilly control structure, which was finished in 2011. The canal’s price tag has gradually risen as the years have passed, from an estimated $60 million to $80 million in 1989 when still just a concept to $188 million in 2010 as the Bayou Lilly structure was well into construction. Graves pointed out the project has quadrupled in cost since 2010, calling that kind of change “just unacceptable.” “We can’t have these numbers continue to float, continue to rise in this type of environment. We’ve got to finish these projects. We can’t continue to keep chasing our tails with increasing costs,” he said. He said when his office and Corps officials put aside the reserve fund now to be tapped, it was never anticipated that overruns would reach as much has the estimates have.

The canal will be finished in 2025.

Corps officials have previously said the project is expected to be finished in mid to late 2025. Graves said Thursday that, as of now, the time frame still appears to be in place, though he noted that the project has run into setbacks before. After months of preparation, the company behind dual natural gas pipelines that course through a significant piece of the huge drainage canal put out required public notices for a key permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to move the lines. Nailing down agreements to move the lines was the source of one of the canal’s most recent and more significant delays. The notice says work on moving the Florida Gas line is expected to start in October.

You build in developed land and you do get stoppages.

Baton Rouge flood canal on track
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