Legislative Report

Bill would make flood control a state priority HB691 would create the Floodplain Evaluation and Management Commission to manage flood control efforts in the state

by Mike Stagg

HB691 would create a new statewide authority to coordinate development and flood control efforts in the states' 24 river basins. If enacted, the bill could create an inland version of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

The House is scheduled to consider on Thursday, Rep. Valerie Hodges' HB691 which would elevate monitoring the status of Louisiana's 24 river basins to the same level of attention as the state now pays to the state's disappearing wetlands.

The Denham Springs representative now serving her second term has been active on flood control issues in her area since taking office, but her concerns gained urgency in the wake of the August 2016 floods. Her home was one of tens of thousands in the Baton Rouge area damaged by flooding.

Earlier in this session, Hodges convinced the House Appropriations Committee to siphon off $190 million in HUD disaster relief money and direct it toward the construction of the Comite River Diversion Project, which has lingered on the shelf for 30 years. Voters in Livingston and Ascension parishes voted to tax themselves to help pay for the project but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has repeatedly refused to fund its share of the project, saying it did not pass the Corps' cost/benefit analysis.

The full House stripped Hodges' funding stream from HB1 during the floor debate on the bill. Hodges said then that she had commitments from several local governments to devote some or all of their disaster funding toward construction of the Comite Diversion project. It calls for the construction of a canal across East Baton Rouge Parish that would allow water from the Comite River to be diverted to the Mississippi River.

With HB691 Hodges has set her sights on a comprehensive statewide approach to flooding issues ranging from flood control to monitoring development in flood plains.

The Independent contacted Rep. Hodges by phone and email regarding her bill but she had not responded to those offers to discuss her bill at press time.

The bill would create the Floodplain Evaluation and Management Commission and give it responsibility for supervision of the state's flood data base and to monitor development with in the state's flood plains. The new commission would be comprised of DOTD (which administers the state flood plan), the CPRA, the Office of Community Development, the Governor's Office of Homeland Security, and a House and a Senate member from each chamber's Transportation committee.

The bill would also require that the flood database be created "for the purpose of the systematic evaluation of drainage and flooding problems in the state."

The most controversial part of the bill would address the reality of flooding, namely that water ignores political boundaries.

The bill states: "The commission shall review the development proposals in each area to ensure that no development in one parish or municipality will have a negative or detrimental effect in any other parish or municipality."

The bill would give the commission the authority to levy penalties against local governmental entities found guilty of approving or authorizing projects that had detrimental affects on neighboring communities.

The flood commission would be obligated to review and update the state flood plan every five years, just as the CPRA is obligated to update its Coastal Master Plan.

In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee last Sunday, DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson revealed to the committee that his department has undertaken a digital mapping project of the Amite River Basin. He said the state was using federal disaster relief to launch the project, which will give the state the kind of digital tools to conduct similar mapping for the state's 23 other river basins.

In response to questioning from Sen. Sharon Hewitt, Wilson said the target date for completion of the Amite Basin mapping project is the fall of 2018.

DOTD Public Information Officer Anastasia Semien, in a statement to The Independent regarding the Amite Basin project, said the department views the project as the forerunner to the kind of broader detailed statewide mapping effort envisioned in HB691.

"The project will produce an in-depth digital hydrology, hydraulic and benefits/consequences model that will be used to evaluate the basin," Semien wrote in an email. "This model will serve as a large-scale planning tools, being able to assist with identifying flood-prone areas and developmental analysis."

The project, Semien added, is federally funded through disaster relief dollars that were awarded to DOTD by the Office of Community Development's Disaster Recovery Unit. The total cost of the project is $2.6 million, according to Semien, $1.98 million for the numerical model and $680,000 for laser elevation data to support the model.

The project just started this month, according to the information provided by Semien, with completion targeted for December 2018.

Part of the investments being made in the Amite Basin project, Wilson told Senate Finance, will give his department the digital foundation to map other river basins.

Hodges' bill, which is at the bottom of Thursday's House Order of the Day, does not provide a funding stream for the commission nor does it have a fiscal note attached to it.

HB691 was originally filed as HB605. It was revised and renumbered after being approved by the House Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee on May 22.