Southern University in Baton Rouge is ‘falling into the river’ and needs $32 million to stop erosion

Previous attempt to address problem described as a ‘Band-Aid’

By: - June 30, 2021 1:05 pm

A sign by Scott’s Bluff at Southern University warns of strong river currents. (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)

Maurice Pitts, the director of facilities at Southern University in Baton Rouge wanted to make it clear Monday that what he was saying about the campus’ worsening erosion problem is “no exaggeration.”  The campus, situated on the Mississippi River is “falling into the river,” Pitts said. “It has become a safety hazard.”

Much of the land behind the Student Health Center has caved in and has had to be barricaded off for safety reasons, Pitts said Monday, as he gave a reporter a tour of campus. He said the erosion is a threat to human safety and that “historic oaks, architecture, and vital utility systems” are all threatened “unless action is taken to stop eroding conditions on the campus.”

Southern University’s Student Health Center needs to be barricaded off in the back due to erosion damage. (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)

During this year’s regular legislative session, Sen. Cleo Fields (D-Baton Rouge), who went to Southern as an undergraduate student and for law school, tried to get money allocated to address Southern University’s erosion issue, but, Fields said Tuesday, “I guess I just didn’t do a good enough job convincing my colleagues to just address it.”

The budget the Louisiana Legislature passed does allocate $1 million to Southern’s “Ravine, Bluff and Riverbank Stabilization Project,” but not only is it a mere fraction of the amount needed to address the problem, but the project is also listed as Priority 5, which means it won’t immediately be put to use.

Southern will have to make a case to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget and the Louisiana Department of Transportation for the money it needs to address its erosion problem, Fields said.  He said the transportation department already understands what Southern needs.

“Southern still needs to urge the department… but I don’t think the department needs much more urging,” he said. The senator said he plans to make a request on behalf of Southern to the joint budget committee “no later than September.”

Southern sits on an outside bend of the river — where erosion is greatest due to stronger currents, Pitts said, and unlike so many other places along the river, the university isn’t protected by man-made levees. Southern also has an on-campus ravine, which serves as the storm drain system outfall for the surrounding Scotlandville areas north and east of campus. The ravine carries rainwater into the Mississippi, Pitts said.

Pitts said the Mississippi’s water levels have gone up over the years because of climate change, and that’s backing up the ravine and making the erosion worse, threatening nearby buildings and roads on campus.

The Student Health Center is most at risk.

Erosion damage close to Southern University’s Student Health Center. (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)

“We are in danger of losing that building,” Pitts said.

He said if the situation isn’t addressed, the building will fall into the ravine within two years.

Erosion has already cost Southern a bridge that connected the residential area to the main campus and a significant piece of walkway on the ravine. Pitts said in 2017 Gov. John Bel Edwards awarded Southern an $10 million mitigation grant “just to take care of that; however, that was a Band-Aid.”

Southern used the grant money to build a road where the bridge used to be. Now, the ravine flows through culverts underneath that road, but Pitts said he wants to extend the culvert pipeline to the Mississippi River so the rising flood levels don’t deteriorate Southern’s buildings or roads any further.

A road was built where an erosion-effected bridged used to be at Southern University. A culvert pipeline was built under the road for the ravine. (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)

In 2017, when Gov. Edwards announced the grant to Southern, he said, “This issue has been a priority not just for the university but also for the state of Louisiana as we have worked to provide funding and temporary fixes over the years; however, this ongoing problem merits a permanent solution, which is why I pledged a $10 million dollar investment as part of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to address the long-term threat posed by this erosion.”

However, Pitts said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has assessed Southern’s erosion problems and concluded that it would take $22 million to fix the erosion damage that exists and about another $10 million to build infrastructure to prevent future erosion.

The rising Mississippi has also been altering the landscape of Scott’s Bluff, where Southern’s campus meets the river. Some oak trees that have grown along the Bluff since the 1800’s are now growing sideways because erosion has caused the surrounding soil to give. 

 

Scott’s Bluff at Southern University (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)

Pitts said he’s very confident Southern will receive the necessary funding in time, especially because of Sen. Cleo Fields’ advocacy for the university in the legislature.

Designing the infrastructure to address the erosion damage alone will take about eight months, so the actual construction likely wouldn’t be completed until 18 months after a project is funded.

Pitts said he wants to build a concrete riverwalk along the bluff, similar to downtown Baton Rouge’s Riverfront Plaza at the Mississippi River levee.

“I’ll have benches in certain spots with lights and a running path,” he said.

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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is an award-winning journalist at The Louisiana Illuminator. Canicosa has previous experience at Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.

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