Jessie Hayes stuck a long, thin twig into the shallow pond behind his house.
The stick quickly hit bottom and then slid down farther into the muck — easily about 8 inches deep.
Hayes was demonstrating Friday how much the narrow stormwater detention pond behind his house in the Galvez area of Ascension Parish had filled in with sediment since it was built more than a decade ago.
For more than three years, Hayes, 48, has been on a fruitless quest to have parish government, fellow Norwood Lake homeowners, a nearby subdivision’s developer and even a next-door landowner to deepen the pond beyond its range of 6 inches to a foot down.
“The only people that care about the pond are the people who back up to it,” said Hayes, former president of his neighborhood’s now-idled homeowner’s association.
Hayes believes the pond can drain less, and that its mucky bottom endangers anyone who might fall into it.
His fight reflects an emerging problem with such ponds, which have proliferated since the 1990s as new development sprawls into ever lower reaches of the Amite River Basin.
The ponds are often cited as justification that a new development won’t flood neighbors, but maintaining them in Ascension, East Baton Rouge and Livingston is left to homeowners — unlike other forms of shared infrastructure, such as pipes, canals, pumps or levees.
In recent years, neighborhoods like Mossy Oaks, Willow Lake and the Shadows at Manchac in Ascension and Acadiana Place in Livingston have grappled with maintenance, design-and-construction and other pond problems that, in some cases, prompted litigation.
While some issues revolve around plant growth or caved-in banks, the big-dollar concern is dredging out the kind of siltation Hayes sees in his neighborhood pond. Dredging can cost from $80,000 to $120,000, depending on a lake’s size.
East Baton Rouge Councilwoman Chauna Banks said ponds are also becoming a way to skirt responsibility over future flooding.
“It is now a loophole for the developers to just go on and be able to be approved,” she said, “and it basically leaves them with no liability regarding long-term maintenance.”
‘Right now, nothing is in place’
While subdivision plans are recorded at the courthouse, Ascension, East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes don’t comprehensively track the number or location of ponds. Local governments keep pond pipes clear, but have few other responsibilities. Generally, they only respond to a pond problem if someone complains.
Yet, with new development come more ponds. One at a time, they are expanding into a large, privatized part of the regional flood protection network, with uncertain funding and a bill that may come due one day.
While some homeowner associations have figured out how to pay for ponds, others have struggled to maintain them. Many neighborhoods don’t have an association.
Banks and a few other local officials have begun to question this paradigm of private management and loose oversight. In Livingston Parish, officials say they are examining whether drainage districts should take over maintenance completely.
Sam Digirolamo, the Livingston Parish planning director, said public officials can only do so much about private ponds.
“We need to maintain them,” he said. “We can’t let that be the responsibility of the homeowner, simply because, like I said earlier, homeowners go and come every day. I mean they sell their house. They go buy another one, you know, and homeowner’s associations change. And some of them just completely dissolve, and then what have you got? You have nothing.”
In 2018, Baton Rouge set standards for pond maintenance by homeowner associations and requirements that problems be fixed within a certain time frame.
Ed Lagucki, president of the 96-member Federation of Greater Baton Rouge Civic Associations, said his groups are still trying to understand the rules and haven’t even considered public maintenance.
“We’re trying, first of all, to figure who is responsible,” he said, and “what they need to do.”
Banks said she wants to see more done to cover the upfront cost of long-term maintenance, perhaps with fees tied to new lot sales or requirements to reserve money.
“I’m not really sure how all that will work, but I think that needs to happen because right now nothing is in place,” she said.
Ascension is also working on a drainage master plan, but the ponds haven’t come up as a topline issue.
An aesthetic issue?
For new homes, the ponds give builders a triple play.
First, they’re engineered to hold runoff from roads, roofs and concrete and release it slowly so canals, bayous and rivers aren’t overloaded with the rush of major rain. That function meets local drainage standards, but dirt from digging out the pond also can raise homes to meet elevation requirements tied to the National Flood Insurance Program.
Plus, the ponds make for nice views, which can boost property value.
Engineers who have designed the ponds for years say the general public has a fundamental misunderstanding of how they work.
In the common “wet” variety, space set aside to store floodwater is above the pond’s normal level. In regular conditions, that capacity is really just air space above the water, not below it.
Through the years, engineers have explained to skeptical residents that even if the pond were filled with dirt the flood storage capacity would not be affected.
“It’s hard for people to understand that,” said Michael Songy, a founding principal and CEO of local engineering firm CSRS Inc. “It’s not only that it’ll function, it won’t hurt how well it functions.”
Because of this engineering reality, local officials and developers have argued that sediment pollution — often the most costly issue to address — is an aesthetic problem that only impinges on water quality of shallow ponds and shouldn’t be borne by the government or the builder.
If siltation built up enough to turn a pond into mudflat, Songy conceded, the plants that would grow from it would affect drainage. But he’s unconvinced that sediment poses much of a problem for most of Louisiana because of its clay soil.
‘No cookie-cutter solution’
In the realities of local politics, however, homeowners with overgrown or silted ponds often clamor for action.
Hayes said a contractor told him last year that dredging would cost $60,000 “to start.” But residents who don’t live on the pond — about five do — wouldn’t pay.
Though his Councilman Dempsey Lambert promised action, Hayes said, other officials have refused to do anything because maintenance isn’t a public service.
In Ascension’s Mossy Oaks, parts of the pond slope broke off, eating deeply into some yards. A legal settlement eventually led to installing some bulkheads.
Gonzales city officials recently agreed to maintain an overgrown pond in a subdivision with no homeowner association. Officials said the pond was operating at less than capacity as new development was planned in the same watershed.
Residents of Acadiana Place in Livingston say they are still grappling with parish officials and a local drainage district.
Garry “Frog” Talbert, who chairs the parish council, said some well-off homeowner associations have been able to charge private maintenance fees. But many homeowners can’t afford those costs, leaving ponds overgrown.
Talbert said public control would allow the parish to better use the ponds for flood protection, but funding remains a big question. The council has discussed a one-time fee, though members have worried how well it would cover a continuing liability.
On the flip side, Talbert added, council members also worry about the political blowback from billing homeowners for pond service. The parish can’t provide public benefits to private property.
Talbert said the council is trying to figure out a fair approach.
“There are some things that just don’t fix themselves overnight,” he said. “These problems have developed over many, many years and affect tons of subdivisions and there’s no cookie-cutter solution.”