A sign by Scott’s Bluff at Southern University warns of strong river currents. (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)
The damage from the erosion of Southern University at Baton Rouge’s campus, located on a bend of the Mississippi River, has only gotten worse since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers examined it last year.
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. Now, campus officials say the university is at risk of losing its Student Health Center within the next two years.
Oak trees that date back to the 1800’s at Scott’s Bluff, where the campus meets the river, are now growing sideways because erosion has caused the surrounding soil to give.
“The erosion’s a big problem,” said Corey Landry, a critical projects manager for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. The state agency is tasked with mitigating land loss along Southern’s riverfront with design input from the Corps of Engineers.
Officials have come up with a plan to bolster the vulnerable section of Southern’s riverfront and fix damage already incurred, but the river and other forces of nature aren’t likely to cooperate with their schedule. Finding the money to pay for the work has proven difficult, and there are now indications the project will cost far more than originally anticipated.
Price tag uncertain
Initial estimates from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projected the cost at $22 million to fix the erosion damage at Southern and another $10 million to build infrastructure to prevent future erosion.
But because of heavy rains and the rising level of the Mississippi River, the original plan for the fix wouldn’t get the job done, said Maurice Pitts, Southern University facilities director.
“Our engineers feel that they may need to do a little bit more than what was proposed,” Landry said.
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The plan to address the erosion includes adding weir protection on campus that will redirect the flow of the river. Engineers also plan to fix the drainage system beneath the Student Health Center and strengthen a wall between the river and the ROTC building on campus.
Pitts also said he wants to build a concrete riverwalk along the bluff, similar to downtown Baton Rouge’s Riverfront Plaza at the levee.
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The department is still working out the price tag for the project, which Landry said they should know by this summer.
In recent years, the university has sought money to address erosion damage until work can begin on a long-range solution. In 2017, the state provided Southern with erosion mitigation funds totaling $10 million, an amount Pitts called “a Band-Aid.”
The budget the Louisiana Legislature approved last year allocated $1 million for Southern’s Ravine, Bluff and Riverbank Stabilization Project. Not only is it a mere fraction of the amount needed to address the problem, dozens of projects are prioritized ahead of Southern for funding.
‘We’ve got to do a permanent fix’
State Sen. Cleo Fields (D-Baton Rouge), a Southern alumnus who has spearheaded the task of getting money from the Legislature for the campus riverbank project, said a DOTD engineer is looking at the scope and cost of the work and developing plans to fix the problem.
“It is gonna cost a lot more than what was projected at the beginning,” Fields said, adding that he intends to request all of the money needed during this year’s legislative session.
“We’re not going to do a temporary fix,” he said. “We’ve been doing too many temporary fixes at Southern, so we’ve got to do a permanent fix.”
DOTD engineers are confident the added infrastructure will be a long-term solution, Landry said.
“They feel that this is going to be really good for years to come for the ravine,” he said.
DOTD aims to start construction on the permanent infrastructure sometime next year. Mitigation work could start this month on areas “that we think the erosion is the worst,” he said.
State legislators are still working through where exactly they will find money for the project, Landry said, adding that DOTD will request the funds in the upcoming legislative session.
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