The Livingston Parish president has agreed to end a lawsuit blocking a major levee extension project in Ascension Parish that residents in Port Vincent and other low-lying Livingston communities feared would flood them.
The Laurel Ridge levee proposal, sought by generations of leaders in Ascension, would significantly reduce flood levels in the lower eastern side of the parish during major floods along the Amite River. But the idea caused tension between the two parishes as local leaders responded to the devastating floods of 2016.
The $24 million joint proposal by Ascension's eastern drainage district and the Pontchartrain Levee District would close a gap in the parish's existing, self-funded eastern levee system along the Amite River, protecting St. Amant and parts of Sorrento, Acy and the Galvez area.
Fearing the levee addition would push flood water east, Livingston sued Ascension, the Pontchartrain Levee District and others in May 2018 to halt the project. But the two parishes agreed to pause the litigation in January 2019 while they negotiated a solution and further analyzed the possible impacts.
Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks said Tuesday he agreed to sign the deal to end the litigation after Livingston engineers told him his parish would suffer no adverse effects from levee extension if a related project along La. 22 in lower Ascension were built — and Gov. John Bel Edward gave him a personal assurance late last week that the state would fund that work along La. 22.
"He said, 'Absolutely, we're going to do the project,'" Ricks said the governor told him.
Ricks, who inked the agreement Monday, also credited U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, and Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment with critical help in brokering the deal.
Only hours after news broke Tuesday about the deal, Edwards, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority all issued statements indicating $42 million in post-2016 federal flood mitigation dollars were going to the La. 22 project.
It is one of 15 first phase projects that Edwards' $1.2 billion Louisiana Watershed Initiative has designated for money. Another is the LSU Lakes.
In a joint Ascension and Livingston parish statement Tuesday, officials from both parishes indicated that they had reached "a new cooperation" on regional drainage problems.
"Storm water does not recognize borders," Cointment said in the statement. "The best way to solve our drainage issues is by working together."
Livingston Parish's lawsuit had not been dismissed as of midday Tuesday in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge. Ricks said lawyers were finalizing the paperwork.
Under the agreement, Ascension Parish will not expand pumping capacity at its Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station until the Comite River Diversion Canal and the La. 22 project are finished. That station has been a frequent target of criticism in lower Livingston and St. James parishes.
Ascension Councilman Chase Melancon, who represents part of the area to be protected by the new levee, said it was still in land acquisition but was hopeful construction could start by late 2021 or 2022. He said the deal means tens of millions of dollars in drainage infrastructure for his parish can move forward.
"You may not have another day like this ever again. I'm on Cloud 9," Melancon said. "It's been a good day."
In low-lying parts of Ascension, state highways like La. 22 have been built up on earthen berms to keep them from flooding, but Ascension officials have noted for years that those berms also have an unintended, perverse effect on local drainage.
They act like low, but wide-ranging dams across the landscape that hold up flood water from heading south toward the Lake Maurepas and Blind River areas.
Known as the "La. 22 gapping project," the newly funded proposal would dig two channels and have La. 22 cross them with new bridges just west of the Amite River Diversion Canal. Backed-up flood water will be able to flow through the new channels.
An engineering analysis finished in January says the channels, working in combination with the Comite Diversion, would expand the flood reduction benefits offered by the levee extension and the diversion and also lower flooding in parts of lower Livingston by as much as 1 foot.
The immediate area around the La. 22 channels would see an increase of up to 3 feet of water while uninhabited swamps south of La. 22 in Ascension and St. James parishes would see increases of up to 1.5 feet. The analysis pitched that aspect as a form of wetlands restoration.
Earlier modeling done for Ascension suggested a combination of the $24 million levee extension and the subsequent raising of the existing levee — part of a longer-term, unfunded plan — would have significant flooding impacts on the Port Vincent and French Settlement areas. Residents in those areas and some Livingston drainage officials spoke out against the levee at the time.
Ricks said the parish's lawsuit was never intended to stop Ascension "from doing what is necessary to protect their residents" but provided time to offset any adverse effects on Livingston.
"These projects will not cost the taxpayers of Livingston Parish, but we will certainly realize a benefit from them," Ricks said.
The Comite Diversion is under construction and expected to be finished at the end of 2022.