Sunday, April 08, 2007
Source: Advocate; Baton Rouge, La. By MARSHA SHULER
Leaders of many communities want their own version of Poverty Point Reservoir, the $48.5 million lake and golf course development that state taxpayers built in rural northeastern Louisiana.
The project has prompted more than a dozen funding requests from lawmakers around the state who see the potential for similar man- made lakes in their districts.
The Poverty Point development's prime sponsor, state Rep. Francis Thompson, has a home on a peninsula in what he calls "my lake," the centerpiece of Poverty Point State Park. Thompson, D-Delhi, has bought and sold other lots in the only private subdivision that lies within a state park.
Thompson's brother Mike, who also was involved in Poverty Point's development, has become the consultant for five other state-funded reservoir projects. Denmon Engineering of Monroe, Poverty Point's engineer, also is handling development work on those other projects.
Denmon and Mike Thompson have made a total of nearly $7 million in state money from the reservoir projects in recent years, state transportation department records show.
Proponents promote the reservoirs as a source of future drinking water and a way to create a recreation economy for rural parishes.
Critics call the reservoirs a waste of public money. The man- made lakes aren't needed as water supplies and can't be justified for recreation, they say.
Environmentalists and some community activists criticize the lakes because creating them floods cemeteries, natural habitat and old family homesteads.
And troubling many is the lack of a master plan that could answer a basic question: How many reservoirs does the state need?
"We cannot afford to build all the reservoir projects everyone could dream up," said Jerry Jones, the state's construction manager.
The state has spent $91.2 million on 10 reservoir projects around Louisiana in the past decade and half, state records show.
Most of the money went to Poverty Point Reservoir and to Grand Bayou Dam and Reservoir in Red River Parish. Eight other projects got tax dollars for feasibility studies, land purchases and other work.
State construction funding requests are in for a total of 15 reservoir projects. The amount so far requested for next year's construction budget is $63.4 million.
Poverty Point model
Poverty Point State Park is fueling the recent reservoir push. Built around a 2,700-acre man-made lake in Richland Parish, the park sports a marina, a golf course, cabins, an RV park and the private subdivision where Rep. Thompson owns a home.
"We are in the poorest area of the whole state. It was devoid of any kind of development," Thompson said. "It's a very important project to our area because it's brought in a lot of traffic.
Between 67,000 and 70,000 people visit the area each year, he said.
The reservoir, a dream of Thompson's since the 1970s, opened in 2003. Thompson said it both drives the local economy and provides a water resource for the future.
Thompson bought 15 lots on a man-made peninsula of the lake and called it Cypress Cove at Poverty Point. He said he's been selling the lots to family and friends, including some involved in lake development.
When asked about his personal investment in a project he got the state to fund, Thompson said: "I've worked 30 years on this. Does it show very much interest if I don't buy enough to build a house on the lake?"
Thompson has hosted delegations of business, civic and political leaders from other parts of the state to see the finished product. His legislation creating the Poverty Point Reservoir District has been copied by other communities.
Other lawmakers are "trying to take care of their own districts" after they see Poverty Point and like it, he added.
"I'm not a part of putting lakes all over this state. My single purpose was to build one in my area," said Thompson, a state representative for 32 years.
While Thompson promotes Poverty Point, his brother Mike has made $1.5 million so far as a project coordinator-administrator for other reservoir projects, according to state records. Some years he has made more than $350,000.
Mike Thompson works with parish governments and specially created entities that pursue reservoir development in their areas. He has had contracts in Allen, Morehouse, Ouachita, Caldwell, LaSalle and Washington parishes.
He also worked on Poverty Point Phase II, which includes a golf course.
Mike Thompson declined requests for an interview about the reservoir developments. Francis Thompson said his brother, a former mayor of Delhi, got the work because of his experience as Poverty Point's executive director during the lake's development. "He was sought out (because) he did a good job for us," Francis Thompson said.
Denmon Engineering, which handled preparation work for Poverty Point, has received $5.3 million from the state doing other reservoir jobs, state transportation records show.
The firm has contracts for site selection, feasibility studies and the environmental analysis needed for approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for projects affecting waterways and wetlands.
Denmon Engineering executive Terry Denmon said his experience with Poverty Point helped his firm beat out others competing for work on the reservoir projects.
"There are not a lot of engineering companies around that practice in this specialty-type field," said Denmon, who used to work for the Corps of Engineers. "Your average civil engineering firm would not have experience in doing water-resource work."
Plans draw opponents
Some people whose land would be flooded by new reservoirs say the situation reeks of politics.
"It's a big racket, with my family being a victim to it," said Jalon Pittman Beech of Bogalusa, whose parents' homestead would be taken for a proposed reservoir in Washington Parish.
"Francis Thompson's got it all sewn up. It's almost like the 'reservoir Mafia,'" Beech said. "We need more land, not water."
Francis Thompson said it's not him but his brother who is involved in projects outside his area. Mike Thompson and Denmon have contracts for the Washington Parish project.
James Moore of Pitkin, who opposes the Allen Parish project, founded the Community Preservation Alliance and started a Web site "to inform the public and make them aware of the tremendous amount of money that's being wasted."
Beech and Moore said Mike Thompson and Denmon are getting paid for projects that are not needed.
But Denmon said two safeguards in the process ensure reservoirs can't be railroaded through: approval from the Corps of Engineers and funding from state lawmakers.
"You have to have both," he said.
The Bayou DeChene Reservoir, near Columbia in Caldwell Parish, has Corps of Engineers approval. Permit applications for the Allen and Washington parish projects are under review by the agency. The Corps' analysis can take a year or more.
Sierra Club Delta chapter chairwoman Leslie March said that even if the projects don't get built, Mike Thompson and Denmon Engineering will profit handsomely from the work they have already done under multiyear, state-funded contracts.
And if they do get built, that will mean more money for years to come, she said.
New rules, no plan
State spending on reservoirs is haphazard and needs a master plan, said Randy Lanctot, president of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, a conservation group.
"It should not be a pork-barrel deal," he said. "We need to be building them in the right places, not because someone has some nice land."
The state first should look at suitable sites for any water- supply needs, then consider recreation, he said.
"Let's evaluate these things before throwing money at them," Lanctot said.
Jones, the state construction manager, said his agency has new criteria for reservoir selection. They were developed by the state Department of Transportation and Development's water resources division. No project has yet been assessed using the new criteria, he said.
Under the rules, future projects must be in areas that rely on one of three major underground water systems - the Sparta, Chicot and Southeast Louisiana (also known as Southern Hills) aquifers.
Priority will go to projects approved by the Corps of Engineers. And a reservoir can't be built unless supporters can show it would fill a water-supply need.
"We don't want to throw up reservoirs to have water-recreation or retirement communities," Jones said. Jones called the new criteria a good first step but said more must be done.
The Ground Water Resources Division of the state Office of Conservation has begun a long-range study of Louisiana's underground water supplies at the direction of the Legislature, said director Anthony Duplechin.
Duplechin said the study won't look at the surface water situation - but it should. When talking about water needs, he said, "you really cannot separate the two."
"Reservoirs are not always a solution," he added.
(c) 2007 Advocate; Baton Rouge, La.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.