Parish Council backs Ourso In Alligator Bayou decision

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter

The Iberville Parish Council last week passed an emergency ordinance ratifying Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr.'s action opening the Alligator Bayou Floodgate.

The emergency ordinance, adopted just after the first named storms of the 2009 hurricane season, will be in effect for 30 days, and can be extended for 30 days, Parish Attorney Scott C. Stassi said.

It declares that the Iberville council is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the floodgate, and that it will remain open except when it is needed to protect the area from backwater flooding.

Ourso made the controversial decision to open the floodgate in June to protect East Iberville property from being held underwater almost continuously.

East Iberville landowners had threatened a lawsuit. The opening of the floodgate drew a suit from an Ascension Parish tour boat operator who said he depended on higher water levels for his business, and criticism from some environments who claimed the action damaged the ecosystem and caused a fish kill.

"Protection of life and property was the sole reason for the placement of the Alligator Bayou Floodgate in Iberville parish, and not to maintain any commercial business or to enhance wildlife and the environment of the area," the emergency ordinance states.

Councilman Salaris Butler of Seymourville questioned why the council needed to pass an emergency ordinance, rather than a resolution.

Stassi said the ordinance would show the parish has agreed with Ourso's decision to open the floodgate.

"I didn't know he didn't have the authority," Butler said.

"It's just asking you to ratify the decision, not that he doesn't accept responsibility for it," the parish attorney said.

Ourso said he stood behind the decision and would "be handcuffed before I change it."

He said he was tired of seeing Iberville Parish's interests given a back seat to to those of East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes.

"If I'm  going to be the pilot on this plane, I want to be in charge of our destination," Ourso said after the council adopted the ordinance.

Chief Administrative Officer Edward A. "Lucky" Songy Jr. said the state installed the floodgate as a way to protect East Iberville residents from backwater flooding from Bayou Manchac, not as a lock or a dam.

The council voted 10-0 in favor of the measure, with Butler abstaining.

"If he already has authority to open or close them, what makes it an emergency," the councilman asked.

The ordinance itself expanded Songy's point.

"The Alligator Bayou 'Floodgate' was installed by the State of Louisiana to prevent backwater flooding from Bayou Manchac into the Spanish Lake Sub-Basin to protect life and property," it said. "The Alligator Bayou Floodgate was never intended to be operated in such a manner as to artificially impound water to maintain any unnatural water level on Alligator Bayou. The Alligator Bayou floodgate is not to be operated in any manner to prevent the natural flow of drainage waters at any time except during the pending threat of flooding from Bayou Manchac."

Keeping the structure open at other times to ensure natural drainage through the area also protects life and property, the measure said.

It also noted the need for the floodgate during storms, citing conditions during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The ordinance also cited property insurance and health considerations as reasons to maintain the natural water flow.

"Maintaining the Alligator Bayou Floodgate in an open position during the 'non backwater flooding conditions' significantly lower the risk of flooding that may endanger life and property and will also reduce the possibility of reclassification of flood zones into a special flood hazard area by [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] that could increase flood insurance rates."

Keeping the gate open also "will prevent unnatural pooling of waters across the land and stagnant conditions that may increase widespread mosquito populations and the threat of West Nile Virus and Encephalitis to area residents."