Audit questions reservoir delays

Published 4:31 am Friday, September 15, 2017

The commission that oversees the Washington Parish Reservoir District has spent more than $3 million to date on the reservoir project but still has not been able to obtain the necessary permit to begin construction and has not yet acquired land rights, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor said in a recent 25-page audit.

Auditors said that the commission, which was established over 10 years ago, has been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to obtain the necessary permits since 2006 and may still need to perform an Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Study, which would result in additional costs and time delays. In addition, the commission has not received any state capital outlay funds since 2007 and does not currently have the funding to purchase land or begin construction, auditors said. Total project costs were estimated 10 years ago at between $27 million and $29 million, not including any environmental mitigation or land acquisition costs.

If the commission does eventually receive the necessary permit, it may not be able to purchase land within the project’s “footprint” because several landowners have publicly stated that they will not sell their property. Although the commission’s chairman, Bill Jenkins, noted in his response to the auditor’s report that he believes the commission can exercise eminent domain through the Louisiana Department of Transportation, state law currently prohibits the commission from obtaining land rights through eminent domain. Auditors recommended that the commission seek an Attorney General’s opinion regarding this matter.

State Sen. Beth Mizell said that the audit reveals that an impartial, outside observer would arrive at the conclusion that the reservoir project has been a waste of time and money. According to the audit, a total of $3 million has been appropriated by the state, and approximately $2.2 million has already been spent. All monies spent have been for consulting, engineering, auditing and legal services. No monies have been spent on land acquisition or construction.

“It think it was refreshing to see the clarity in black and white of what has taken place,” Mizell said. “In the past, we’ve had the back-and-forth of varied opinions on what has occurred over the last decade. I thought it was a big step toward transparency in this process.”

According to the commission’s first audit report in 2004, the reservoir project was intended to enhance economic development and offer opportunities for recreational development. Since 2004, the project’s purpose has changed to increasingly focus on water resources, in spite of evidence from the U.S. Geological Survey that Washington Parish has abundant groundwater resources, auditors said.

Auditors also noted that the legislature may wish to direct the commission to evaluate the viability of the project, including ways to obtain enough funding for completion, whether or not to revise the scope and design of the project, or whether or not the project should be continued.

“I think the audit reinforces what I tried to do my first year in office, which is repeal the commission,” Mizell said. “When a project has no public support, no money and no permit, and it is languishing and spending taxpayer money with no outcome, then it serves no purpose. The audit reinforced that it needs to be repealed.”

Mizell was the author of a 2016 law that originally would have eliminated the commission, but was revised in the House to allow the commission to continue — although it would be without the power of eminent domain.

The document includes a cover letter addressed to both State Senate president John Alario Jr. and House Speaker Taylor F. Barras. It is signed by Thomas H. Cole, CPA, First Assistant Legislative Auditor.

“I hope this report will benefit you in your legislative decision-making process,” Cole wrote.

Messages left with Jenkins were not immediately returned. However, in an addendum to the audit, Jenkins signed a letter titled “Management’s Supplemental Response of the Washington Parish Reservoir Commission to Louisiana State Auditor,” outlining the commission’s concerns with the audit’s conclusions.

“While it is clear that the intent of the audit report is to assist factions that desire to kill the project, the record suggests that rather than retreating in response to a few vocal detractors, perhaps the Legislature should be concerned that biased forces within the Army Corps of Engineers appear to be actively impeding the will of the Legislature which formed the WPRC for the express purpose of constructing a reservoir in Washington Parish,” the letter states.

The letter also states that “the legislature may wish to consider whether it was reasonable or appropriate to eliminate the WPRC’s eminent domain authority in the first place, and who or what motivated that action specific to the WPRC, while no objections have been raised with respect to other reservoir commissions.”

The complete auditor’s report and the commission’s response can be viewed online at