The cash-strapped Town of Sorrento confronts persistent drainage problems among the direst in Ascension Parish. Denied any meaningful relief from the parish or East Ascension Drainage Board since adoption of the Prescott Follett drainage plan in the early 1980s, mounting frustration has certain of Sorrento’s elected officials contemplating legal action to force the parish’s hand. They are no more frustrated than Bob Debate who has witnessed the parish grow around his native Sorrento, rendering the town’s problems ever more acute.
He may be the only individual who possesses a complete copy of the Follett Plan’s three-phased report, much of which he has committed to memory. The perpetual ½% sales tax adopted to fund EA Drainage was predicated upon the plan. For Sorrento’s benefit the plan included a pump station on Conway Bayou in combination with a ring levee protecting the town. The ring levee never came to pass, was never seriously considered by the parish’s decision-makers.
Debate is scheduled to present his conclusions to Sorrento’s town council on Tuesday. The absence of that ring levee has been a source of irritation to Debate who took up the subject when he guided Clint Cointment on a tour of Sorrento drainage deficiencies recently.
“The Follett Plan has been ignored when it comes to Sorrento while our citizens are taxed right along with every other resident of the east bank,” Debate began. “The sales tax enacted in the early 1980s was based on the plan which included the levee and other improvements for Sorrento.”
That (1/2%) tax is dedicated to “…operating gravity and/or forced drainage facilities to drain lands in said Drainage District, including drains, drainage canals, ditches, pumps and pumping plants, dikes, levees, and other related works…as contemplated by the Drainage Plan set forth in the Study and Report, dated March 15, 1982, prepared by Prescott Follett & Associates, Inc…”
Cointment ticked off a laundry list of items not being addressed to improve drainage in Sorrento and the entire drainage basin.
- Start with a drainage maintenance plan
- Start cleaning out ditches and culverts that pose the most risk
- Replace crushed and damaged culverts
- Secure the necessary drainage right-of-way to ensure that structures are not built on top of drainage ditches
- Begin long term solutions to combat the amount of growth that has taken place West of Sorrento.
- One long term solution is to levee off the southern part of the parish and increase the size of the current Sorrento pumping Station.
“Mr. Bob’s frustration is typical of so many residents I meet, and not just in the Town of Sorrento. On the ride over I lost count of the overgrown ditches, metal culverts mashed closed and others choked with silt,” Cointment said. “There’s even a new house built on top of what used to be a major drainage ditch.”
“The ditches are clogged, drainage equipment under water with dead batteries on pumps. The Follett plan made a lot of promises, a ring levee around Sorrento, especially along Stringer Bridge Road that has been a problem during major flooding events,” he added.
Cointment has, for the better part of a decade, put forward practical solutions to improve drainage; a multi-phased approach that begins with regular maintenance of ditches and canals.
Sorrento is drained by the Bayou Conway/Panama Canal system which includes pumps that lack the awesome force of Marvin Braud Pumping Station situated southeast of (and not far from) the town. Those pumps, which happen to be a stone’s throw from Bob Debate’s home, struggle to protect Sorrento during major rain events which seem to occur with alarming frequency. Or maybe worsening drainage can no longer handle the same volume of water.
“More and more development to our west pushes more and more water on top of Sorrento,” Bob Debate insists. “It’s no secret to anyone paying the least bit of attention over the past several years.”
His experience, living over 50 years on Brittany St which runs southeast from Hwy 30 in Gonzales to Sorrento, and another 21 years on the banks of Bayou Conway, provide Debate with unique perspective. He has witnessed the changes over (almost) eight decades. Debate was a member of Drainage Workshop convened by GSA Consulting Engineers in 2017 which concluded:
Extreme rain events cause Conway Bayou to overflow Brittany St, west of Sorrento and compete with water coming from a large culvert on Brittany Tower Rd. Combined water gravitates into the RR trestle (alongside Airline Hwy) in Brittany. Water in excess of 2nd RR trestle in Sorrento, competing with the rain water, resulting in a situation which causes water to back up into residential areas along Brittany St.
Debate also questions the sufficiency of the culverts under Airline Hwy at Sorrento Lumber Company to move the large volumes of water.
“The group’s findings verified what most of us suspected, and the proposed solutions are not new ones,” he recalls. “Upgrades to the pumps are needed, along with a closed levee system by extending it to Airline Hwy.”
Along with drainage channel improvements, there seems to be a consensus among engineering firms retained by Ascension Parish over the years. What about the cost?
“How much money is in the drainage fund right now?” Cointment interposed a question, simple on its face but never eliciting a straight answer from personnel responsible for East Ascension Drainage.
At the end of 2017, according to the parish’s official audit there was over $49 million in the fund; and that’s not counting another $9 million made available after retiring outstanding bonded debt or $33 million awarded in a FEMA mitigation grant after the Great Flood of 2016.
“Sorrento, like the rest of East Ascension, voted to renew a five-mill property tax for EA Drainage operations and maintenance for another ten years,” Cointment pointed out. “The state constitution was also amended on November 6, making it crystal clear that Ascension Parish and EA Drainage can legally take on projects beneficial to the Town of Sorrento and two other municipalities.”
The vote amends Article VII, Section14(B) of Louisiana’s Constitution to permit “the donation of the use of public equipment and personnel by a political subdivision upon request to another political subdivision…”
“Mr. Bob is absolutely correct, development to the west pushes more water into Sorrento. Flood waters want to drain west-to-east, and on to Blind River by the means of Bayou Conway and the Panama Canal. Like most of our parish, rain water naturally flows eastward to Lake Maurepas, eventually getting back to the Gulf of Mexico through Lake Pontchartrain,” Cointment summarized.
East Ascension Drainage is the one area where Parish Government cannot plead poverty. And there is more on the way with an indeterminate portion of the $1.237 BILLION federal Flood Mitigation funding through HUD expected in 2019.