Officials Discuss Timeline for Long-Sought $343 Million Comite River Diversion

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Officials plan to award a construction contract for the long-delayed Comite River Diversion Canal within three months, with an eye toward completion in early 2021.

Construction is to be paid for with $343 million in federal flood mitigation money.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the legislature’s Comite River Diversion Canal task force, state Sen. Bodi White, a Baton Rouge Republican, joked that he would tattoo the contract award and completion dates on his arm so he could easily answer questions about the project from constituents. The diversion has been sought since severe flooding in 1983, and public attention intensified after devastating floods in the Capital Region in 2016.

"I don’t want to paint this picture too rosy," said Bobby Duplantier with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "There are going to be issues that are going to come up, and we’re just going to have to overcome them."

The Corps often is criticized for moving too slowly on approved projects. For this diversion, meant to channel water from the Comite to the Mississippi River, officials from the Corps and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development will be on site and able to resolve disagreements, rather than having to wait for a decision from Corps officials in New Orleans, Duplaniter said.

The Corps also has opened a small office in Baton Rouge, said Nick Sims, the assistant deputy district engineer for project management in that office. The office will assist with oversight of $1.4 billion in Corps projects in Louisiana, he said.

Once complete, the Comite diversion should reduce flood risk for communities in the greater Baton Rouge area and eliminate the requirement for many homeowners to buy flood insurance. For example, the base flood elevation level is expected to be seven feet lower in Zachary and five feet lower in Central, said State Rep. Valarie Hodges, the Denham Springs Republican who chaired Wednesday’s meeting.

But Cindy O’Neal, the state coordinator for the National Flood Insurance Program, stressed that homeowners should not drop their coverage. Instead, officials should urge them to move to a lower-cost Preferred Risk Policy.