February 7, 2024

Balancing Act: The 10-Year Amite River Elevation Program

Balancing Act: The 10-Year Amite River Elevation Program

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers  has revisited a long-debated plan to address water damage in the Baton Rouge-area river basin following the devastating 2016 floods, according to this article from The Advocate. The proposed plan involved elevating or flood proofing nearly 3,300 homes, businesses, and other structures in the Amite River Basin. The Corps estimated that this extensive undertaking would span a decade and potentially cost around $2 billion.

Initially, the plan included a 3.6-mile-long dam, the Darlington Dam, with an estimated cost of $1.3 billion, and a smaller $1 billion home elevation program. However, opposition arose in East Feliciana and St. Helena parishes, expressing concerns about the dam’s safety and its disproportionate impact on impoverished and minority residents. Consequently, the Corps shifted its focus and introduced a larger voluntary elevation program.

Under this revised proposal, high-risk homes would be elevated above the 100-year flood level, while businesses, churches, community centers, fire stations, and grocery stores would be flood-proofed to enhance their resilience to high water. The Corps envisioned a gradual implementation, estimating that approximately 500 homes and businesses per year would undergo elevation or floodproofing after an 18-month startup phase.

Kaitlyn Richard, a Corps senior project manager, clarified that the draft feasibility report did not explicitly consider the market’s capacity to handle the elevation program within the proposed 10-year timeline. However, the study incorporated risk factors to account for such concerns. Richard acknowledged that these issues could be raised during subsequent reviews by the public and various layers of the Corps of Engineers.

The economic impact of the Amite River Basin elevation program was noteworthy, with the draft estimating support for about 15,430 local jobs over the project’s duration. In the past year, the plan faced public comment, with virtual meetings held due to anticipated poor winter weather. The public input deadline was set for January 29, and a key decision on endorsing the proposal was expected in late February.

Should the plan have moved forward, it faced a lengthy process of internal reviews, culminating in a final chief’s report by July. Congressional authorization and funding would have been necessary for implementation, with the state or another non-federal sponsor covering 35% of the cost, potentially exceeding $700 million. While some home elevation plans in Louisiana initiated construction steps, concerns emerged about the Amite River proposal. Local officials argued that the plan didn’t prevent flood water rise but rather focused on fortifying structures against high water. U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, a key figure in potential authorization and funding, voiced his reservations about the plan.

In response to concerns, the Amite River Basin Commission explored alternative measures, considering the use of sand-and-gravel pits north of Watson to temporarily contain floodwater. Despite the Corps’ reanalysis of flood reduction measures, the elevation-only program recommended by the Corps may have fallen slightly short of a critical benefit-cost ratio. The Corps had recommended a plan with a benefit-cost ratio as low as 0.997, indicating that the cost might have slightly exceeded the benefit. Typically, the Corps sought projects with a ratio of at least 1 to justify federal expenditures meeting national objectives. However, in this case, the Corps prioritized including more homes in socially vulnerable areas, even if it meant a slightly less cost-beneficial plan.

As the draft report underwent further review, stakeholders, including the public and government agencies, played a crucial role in shaping the future of the Amite River Basin elevation program. The decision-making process unfolded over the last few months, with potential impacts on flood risk management in south Louisiana.

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