Healthy Gulf joins Focus on St. Tammany Forum: A Panel on Flooding and Development Issues

Heathy Gulf was an invited panel member at the Progressive Northshore Democrats and Honey Island Sierra Club Group’s recent Focus on St. Tammany forum which covered the Future of Fontainebleau State Park and Parish Flooding problems. In the Flooding panel last Friday night at the Abita Springs Town Hall, I presented a short version of Healthy Gulf’s Floodplain Resilience talk which uses wetland fill permit application data in the Louisiana Parishes around Lake Pontchartrain to create maps showing where the greatest wetland filling activity is taking place. The hotspots are western St. Tammany Parish and farther west along the Amite River in E. Baton Rouge and Livingston Parishes, and south of Baton Rouge in Ascension Parish in the Prairieville area.

Our Floodplain Resilience data concentrates on the I-12 corridor between St. Tammany and E. Baton Rouge Parish so I selected six St. Tammany slides for the Sierra Club’s panel. My discussion kicked off the second panel of speakers that included Ren Clark, a Mandeville planning and zoning commission member, Kim Coates of Ponchatoula who is newly elected to the Tangipahoa Parish Council, Matthew Allen a certified floodplain manager and special appointee to a St. Tammany Parish Council flood ordinance study group, and Dennise Tabony, a homeowner, who talked about new St. Tammany subdivisions that don’t fully disclose all flood risks. She bought property in one of these and had to fight the developer to get her money back.

Our data was displayed on maps with red circles of various sizes describing locations of Army Corps of Engineers Section 404 Clean Water Act wetland fill permit applications in St. Tammany Parish, along with the 5 year running total of acres affected by these permits: 1246 acres. Since each wetland acre can store 1 million gallons of water, this amount of filling activity over 5 years (2014-2018) sends 1.24 billion gallons of stormwater into the surface drainage. This volume, that otherwise would be sequestered in wetland soils and vegetation, now will need engineered management and will add to the cumulative burden of stormwater management. All of this is happening in a Parish with a flat topography that continues to rapidly develop and grow. Much of the wetland filling activity shown by our maps is located west and south of Covington, La., along both sides of the Tchefuncte River, both north and south of Interstate 12.

A point we made in our talk is that the Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s (CPRA) 2017 Coastal Master Plan identified a large portion of south St. Tammany Parish (much of it in the Coastal Zone), as a place appropriate for elevations of homes and businesses, flood-proofing, and voluntary buyouts of repetitive loss properties. When the state itself identifies this kind of localized need with a $1.6 billion price-tag, it makes little sense to build using the same construction methods that have restricted the way local floodplains function over the past four decades of urbanization in St. Tammany: clay fill and concrete slab structures in dense developments. Elevation of structures on piers makes more sense in a place with an altered, impaired floodplain that keeps receiving massive and unprecedented rainfall events in tropical systems, storm surges pushing up northshore rivers,  and drenching unseasonal downpours that are breaking records for rainfall in inches per hour. Construction on brick piers was the state of the art for 100 years in the region before the 1960s ushered in a Causeway for commuters who overwhelmingly have built or purchased homes on concrete slabs raised on fill.

In the second speaker panel on flooding, my statement that it “Doesn’t make sense to continue to build slab-on-grade structures in the CPRA non-structural project area” was an unexpected applause line for this crowd of St. Tammany Parish residents and homeowners.

The Fontainebleau State Park panel was in response to Louisiana Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser’s idea to put a hotel and convention center in or adjacent to the state park. This was an unpopular idea with the crowd that gathered in Abita Springs, many of whom were veterans of the effort to create the Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge and keep a long swath of marsh and swamp preserved and undeveloped just east of Fontainebleau Park. The push from a state executive agency to commercialize a state park and subsidize hotel space in an area with less than peak occupancy is not welcome, judging from the crowd in the room last Friday night. Parish President Pat Brister attended during the state park panel and heard many criticisms of Mr. Nungesser’s hotel/convention center project. If Parish government doesn’t welcome the hotel idea, President Brister indicated that Nungesser won’t pursue it. However, she didn’t reveal how Parish government views Nungesser’s idea.

Andrew Whitehurst is Healthy Gulf’s water program director and covers wetland and water pollution issues in Misssissippi and the Northshore Parishes.

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