Ouachita Parish officials say the Louisiana Watershed Initiative abandoned its mission by failing to award a single dollar for flood prevention projects in northeastern Louisiana during the first round of funding.
Of 41 eligible applications, only 16 projects received funding, nearly all of them located in the central and southern parishes of the state. The funding was made available through the state, which received $1.2 billion in federal Community Development Black Grant Hazard Mitigation funds in September 2020.
No projects in the 14 northeastern Louisiana parishes, including Ouachita, in the Watershed Initiative's Region 3 received funding.
“We fully anticipated some funding but never did I imagine we would get zero funding,” said Ouachita Parish Police Jury President Shane Smiley.
The Louisiana Watershed Initiative claimed its mission entailed awarding funding to projects that improve flood prevention across parish and state lines, instead of addressing hyper-local needs, as part of an effort to improve drainage across the state.
A watershed is an area of land that drains to a common point.
“I don't know how we could be left out,” Smiley said. “It totally defeats the purpose of watershed because watershed in our area affects water flow to the rest of the state.”
Police Jury Vice President Jack Clampit and parish consulting engineer Kevin Crosby noted Ouachita Parish bore the brunt of damage in the 2016 flood and subsequent hurricanes.
“It totally discourages smaller parishes from even trying,” said Crosby, referring to Franklin Parish. “When you look at the damages in our parish, compared to others, it was devastating.”
In a May 27 announcement, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the list of 16 projects receiving $61.6 million in Round 1 funding, including $10 million for the Chatlin Lake Canal backwater overflow relief structure in Rapides Parish, $8.5 million for Bayou Duplantier floodplain acquisition in East Baton Rouge Parish and $749,000 for Coushatta Casino Resort wastewater treatment plant floodwall in Allen Parish among others.
“We're the eighth largest parish and one of the top 10 most affected by the 2016 flood,” Clampit said. “And none of the parishes in northern Louisiana got any money.”
Smiley questioned how Ouachita Parish could have been snubbed when he and Crosby were meeting with Ben Wicker, a resilience planning analyst with the Louisiana Watershed Initiative, early in the process. Wicker declined to speak with The Ouachita Citizen.
Pat Forbes, executive director at the state Office of Community Development, told the newspaper there were no projects in Region 3 that were appropriate for receiving funding during Round 1.
“It looks like they (Ouachita Parish) have important projects that could have very real benefits to folks,” Forbes said. “It's really more about what would be appropriate for Round 1, not whether they're good projects.”
Forbes' office oversees how the $1.2 billion in CDBG Hazard Mitigation funds are awarded.
According to Forbes, the focus of awarding funding during Round 1 was “risk reduction” while refraining from awarding funds to any projects that might have a “negative impact.”
“We don't know that because we don't have the models in place,” Forbes said.
When asked about specific projects in Ouachita Parish, Forbes declined to explain why certain projects failed to meet the criteria for funding in Round 1.
“You can't look through the selection criteria as an indication of why those projects didn't get picked. It's not that they're not good projects,” Forbes said. “It's just that they didn't fit the Round 1 requirements, which are that they are ready to go and can't cause harm to anyone downstream.”
Forbes said it was impossible to say what kind of impact a flood prevention project in Ouachita Parish might have without hydraulic modeling.
According to Forbes, Round 1 represented a “small piece” of the Louisiana Watershed Initiative's investment in projects across the state. The investment required spending half of the $1.2 billion in hazard mitigation funds in the top 10 parishes determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to be the most distressed. Ouachita Parish is one of those 10 parishes.
“Not getting a project funded does not mean it won't get projects funded,” Forbes said. “We will be spending money in the 10 most impacted parishes.”
The next phase in funding includes the divvying up of $40 million between eight watershed regions for projects selected by steering committees made up of members representing those areas.
Karen Cupit, who is the assistant treasurer for the Police Jury and a representative for Region 3, said the region's steering committee would be given $5 million to recommend for funding.
Cupit noted that many of the major projects in northeastern Louisiana cost more than half of the $5 million available to each watershed region.
Among the unfunded projects up for possible funding was the city of Monroe's West Parkview Drainage Improvement project costing some $2.83 million to build about 2,200 feet of concrete storm sewer in existing city right-of-way or through city-owned properties to increase run-off drainage rates, as well as provide additional storage from the West Parkview area of Monroe to Youngs Bayou.
The Youngs Bayou Detention Ponds project also will advance to the regional selection process, seeking $2.68 million for flood storage, specifically the construction of retention ponds near the confluence of Youngs Bayou, East Prong, West Prong, Oliver Road and Rogers Canal near the Airport Canal.
The only project from the Ouachita Parish Police Jury up for funding in the next phase was the purchase of about 10 portable pumps and the intake and discharge piping needed for them ($2.68 million).
The city of Monroe also is seeking $2.61 million for the Georgia Street Pump Station project, building a 45,000-gallon-per-minute pump station and one-mile force main to pump rainfall run-off to the Ouachita River.