Unfortunately, the one constant that has failed every mitigatory effort to date has been the overall improvement of Cypress Bayou.
Several initiatives intended to reduce this local flooding threat have focused exclusively on the Bayou’s reclamation and rehabilitation needs. This issue has been a priority concern of Mayor Amrhein’s administration since entering office in Jan. 2011. Two significant grant proposals have been offered as a remedy, with each now at a critical point in the process.
One shared requirement of each grant was the completion of a “feasibility study” for determining the overall value of the project and for identifying the scope of work required to complete it. The challenge lay not in the competing interests of the funding sources, one federal and one state, but rather in the specific language used to describe the work proposed for the project.
State funds pursued come from the DOTD’s Statewide Flood Control Program and had been requested in the amount of $2 million. The smaller of two grant proposals, DOTD receives only $10 million annually toward this statewide initiative.
Needless to say, the grant funds are highly sought after and very competitive. The City originally applied to this State funding source in 1984 and again in 1985 for improvements to Cypress Bayou, but was denied each year.
Federally, grant monies originate from the Gustav/Ike Disaster Recovery Fund. Zachary qualified for $1.4 million in funding in 2009 following Hurricane Gustav. Although a federal program, these HUD funds are administered by the State of Louisiana.
The Bayou’s “feasibility study” would require an advance against the federal grant dollars, with a completed study satisfying the requirements for each initiative. Unfortunately, an early expenditure of grant dollars could ultimately produce a study and results which disallows the project. Proposed/required engineering strategies that increase hydrology and flow rate within the Bayou could prove detrimental to communities downstream, according to well placed sources within the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, a finding which would negate the City’s ability to proceed with the project.
State DOTD funds would allow for clearing and grubbing of the Bayou with grade elevation work occurring to the adjacent land mass beside the Bayou site, in areas prone to flooding.
Federal monies however would require the Bayou be re-engineered, while employing a combination of clearing and grubbing techniques, in addition to widening and deepening of the channels along the Bayou at select points.
Regardless of the potential improvement that might be realized, the hydrology models would still have to win the approval of the Corps of Engineers.
This becomes more confusing when considering a response letter from the Corps dated Aug. 17, 2011, referencing a “Solicitation of Views” request submitted by the City of Zachary on July 25, 2011, regarding the State DOTD project proposal for Cypress Bayou.
The Corps states in their response that “they did not anticipate any adverse impacts to any Corps of Engineer Projects” as a result of the City of Zachary’s Cypress Bayou proposal. A meeting attended a week later in New Orleans with the Corps regarding the Gustav/Ike Federal grant proposal ended with their denying the project on the basis of increased hydrology concerns once the proposed engineering strategies for widening and deepening were considered.
That contradiction is further compounded when considering that even with the award approval of both grant funds, they would not be enough to remediate the entire Bayou.
Cypress Bayou follows a nine (9) mile circuitous route through Zachary. Conservative estimates place the price for grubbing and clearing at roughly $38 dollars a foot while re-engineering work through shaping, widening and deepening would cost approximately $58 dollars a foot to complete.
With the exception of very limited clearing/cleaning efforts on the part of City of Zachary and inmate labor assistance in accessible areas of the Bayou, this East Baton Rouge Parish owned tributary has not been thoroughly cleaned since 1979.
Conversations with EBR Parish Public Works officials offer some hope that the clearance of debris from some of the more accessible areas of the Bayou may be possible in the foreseeable future. The Parish has taken the City’s concerns under advisement and is presently studying this possibility.
One final concern is the uncertain condition(s) of connecting tributaries south of Zachary which ultimately empty into the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge.
Blockages downstream could serve to impede the flow of Cypress Bayou, even with the proposed improvements in place. Inhibiting the process further is the bleak outlook for the future of the proposed Comite River Basin/Diversion Project, which remains largely unfunded and in the midst of on-going study itself.
A separate, though related project has been the on-going attempt to identify and then qualify “flood prone” properties in Zachary.
After determining individual eligibilities, several were identified as either a (RRL) Recurring Repetitive Loss or a (SRL) Severe Repetitive Loss Properties.
A preliminary list of potential properties for grant application consideration was provided to the City by EBRMOHSEP (EBR Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness) with Zachary’s further participation being encouraged by GOHSEP (Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness).
The City of Zachary identified more than 60 such properties affected by past hurricane or flood water damage. All were subject to exhaustive analysis and review and reduced to a final four properties.
These were submitted for federal funding assistance on the basis of documented loss, project definition and categorical qualification. Tentative approval and advancement by GOHSEP (Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness) facilitated the process, with a final approval from FEMA required to affect the grant awards.
The submitted claims, once approved, would have resulted in either property buy-outs in the case of three of the claimants, and a separate site elevation certificate issuance for a fourth.
The City learned this past summer that all four of its claimants had been denied. The basis for the denials according to FEMA was that the amounts of individual loss did not rise to the level of, or exceed the value of the affected property.
Unfortunately, any of the properties could easily flood again without having realized any financial relief from the same federal programs intended to assist them.
In a letter dated Nov. 27, 2012, the City was advised by the State’s Office of Community Development – Disaster Recovery Unit, that the “Cypress Bayou Project’s” final Federal application must be approved no later than May 31, 2013, or risk having the grant funds de-obligated. City officials met with representatives from the State and the Corps of Engineers in Baton Rouge before Christmas regarding the new time line.
A very thoughtful and thorough evaluation of the current status of this Gustav/Ike Project was discussed in great detail.
Unfortunately, the Project has been stymied repeatedly over its life by new or emerging project requirements, amendments and concerns as well as costly time delays.
The most immediate and pressing concern had been centered on whether or not to advance the Bayou’s “feasibility study”. The uncertain position of the Corps of Engineers and its failure to take a definitive stand, by either approving or denying the City’s project request, has left it in a perpetual state of limbo.
It was generally conceded by all parties present, given the totality of circumstances that the Cypress Bayou reclamation and rehabilitation initiative may be near an end.
With the time remaining for successful application submittal and approval, the City is faced with the very real prospects of de-obligation and forfeiture of $1.4 million in grant funds.
As a consequence and given the limited options remaining, the City is presently working to identify a new project in order to assure retention of the grant funds.
This new effort must include language which specifically addresses a direct and significant link to Zachary’s 2008 Hurricane Gustav damages. It must also demonstrate the ability to reduce the damaging effects to the City, or its infrastructure, from a similar storm's occurrence in the future.
This new initiative would require and be contingent upon the successful submittal of a Tier III Request (application for proposed project change) and, if upon acceptance, win final State application approval for a new project prior to the impending May 31 deadline.
The City’s administration remains deeply concerned and committed to the local community with regard to the ever-present Bayou flooding threat. The options for effective mitigation, while having been significantly reduced, must give way to alternative measures in order to assure retention of these grant funds.
A new proposal will serve to guarantee more proactive preparation(s) and advanced readiness, while at the same time protecting local assets during future severe weather conditions.