Dozens of drainage projects underway while LCG develops a plan

Director of Drainage Brian Smith (forefront), Public Works engineers Fred Trahan and Jessica Cornay (seated), and Public Works Director Chad Nepveaux discussed dozens of drainage projects with the City and Parish councils May 3.

The gist: LCG’s Public Works Department and its consultants delivered an overview of dozens of drainage projects before Lafayette’s City and Parish councils Tuesday night. Absent in the discussion was an issue playing out in the courts — whether LCG pursued such an aggressive program of construction according to a plan.

Get caught up, quickly. Lafayette has been moving at a breakneck pace to deal with flooding, putting projects big and small on the books over the past couple of years with little to no benefit-cost analyses of them. Along the way, it hit legal snags after expropriating private property for detention ponds, and the outcome of one of those cases may hinge in part on whether LCG has a master plan for drainage. In the first case to go to trial, a district judge ruled against LCG, noting its lack of a plan in her ruling. That case, which involves Randol family property near Costco, was argued before the Third Circuit Court of Appeal this week, with this very issue taking center stage. A ruling is expected within a month.

Two hours of drainage talk ballooned a special joint meeting of the City and Parish councils, held between regular council meetings. Public Works employees went through their presentation frame by frame, updating each project without detailing how they fit into a full-scale plan. And Guillory defended his government’s diligence in selecting and vetting projects, particularly the massive Homewood Regional Detention Pond, insisting the science and engineering back up the aggressive and expensive campaign.

“A lot of vetting, a lot of vetting going in there,” Guillory said in remarks wrapping up the presentation. “The House of Representatives in the state vetted it, the state Senate vetted it, the governor vetted it, and the bond commission vetted it. They wouldn’t fund these kinds of projects without the science and engineering. The university, objectively, and in a non-biased manner, issued a letter recently supporting this project.”

An April 2021 study by UL’s Louisiana Watershed Flood Center suggested the Homewood project had limited and only indirect benefit, making no specific recommendations. The memo referenced by Guillory Tuesday night and obtained from UL through a public document request only reiterates those findings, which suggest Homewood may not pay off on its hefty price tag, estimated at as much as $60 million and largely funded by the state. A district judge ruled against LCG late Wednesday and halted the Homewood project, citing the UL report’s observations and LCG’s selective interpretation of it.

$106 million was the reported value of drainage projects outlined by LCG staff and consultants Tuesday evening, including several new detention ponds and increased maintenance.

$1 million is the maximum value of the contract awarded to Baton Rouge-based architecture/engineering firm CSRS Inc. in August 2021 to develop a “comprehensive stormwater management plan.”

If there is a plan, why is LCG paying for a new one? In an April trial over the expropriation of more than 350 acres from the Bendel family for the Homewood project, LCG consulting engineer Pam Granger testified that a plan she authored in 2017 is LCG’s comprehensive plan. Granger’s study and modeling of Homewood was the only justification for the project LCG used in court. Granger, who stands to make several million dollars on the project should LCG prevail on appeal, said an “update” to her stormwater plan was underway but was short on details. (Read more on the ongoing contradictory statements here.)

Earlier there was no plan. In the Randol case last summer, LCG Engineering Supervisor Fred Trahan testified that no formal document exists, explaining that LCG is following a “program,” not a “plan.” However, just months later LCG had something different to say in the Homewood case.

LCG declined to comment for this story until after pending litigation was complete, citing legal advice. But LCG has characterized the CSRS plan as an “update,” insisting its ongoing drainage work was vetted by in-house and consulting engineers and comported with a plan that M-P Josh Guillory claimed in April was “more comprehensive than most counties and parishes in the country.”

The CSRS contract makes no mention of an update. Notably, the contract stipulates that CSRS and LCG would not even begin work on a comprehensive stormwater plan until after Phase I, valued at $300,000, was completed. Nowhere in either the RFQ or the contract itself is the work identified as an “update.”

“Through meeting with LCG and entities throughout the Parish identified in the Evaluation and Existing Data section, CSRS will create an inventory of the major proposed projects,” the contract reads. “CSRS will utilize data and information collected, sound engineering judgement (sic), and available H&H models to identify each project’s potential flood risk reduction capacity.” A little later in the contract is the stipulation that “clear and consistent scoring criteria will provide decision-makers with direction on how and where to direct stormwater management investments.”

LCG held back the CSRS contracts from a public records request. As the Homewood case was playing out in court, Straight News Online’s March 14 request to LCG for its contract with CSRS was delayed, with LCG at one point granting itself “a 30-day extension.” It was only after the trial had concluded that LCG’s legal department released the document. On April 13, the day the judge in the Homewood case had initially indicated she would rule, Straight News Online was sent a Dropbox link indicating the file had been available, unmodified and ready-for-delivery, since April 1.

Council members have been satisfied with the administration’s work. The presentation was requested by Councilwoman Nanette Cook (she was absent for the meeting) amid concerns about the administration’s use of expropriation to build ponds, which has led to at least two costly battles. Council members applauded the progress and raised no issue with the question of a comprehensive plan.

“I think it’s really impressive, and it’s something that us as a parish can really be proud of,” Parish Councilman Josh Carlson said Tuesday night.