Lake Pontchartrain is just one part of a vast ecological system in southeast Louisiana called the Lake Pontchartrain Basin. It is one of the largest estuarine systems in the United States. Known for its slow-moving rivers, swamps and bayous (marshy inlets or outlets of a lake or river), the Basin is comprised of a 4,700 square mile area in 16 Louisiana parishes and four Mississippi counties. It is the prime habitat for countless species of fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, and plants. The lake is a center of heritage, brimming with people who want a cleaner, healthier lake.
About five thousand years ago, glacier thaws in North America caused the Mississippi River to swell and move eastward. The river left the mud and sediments it had carried in the Gulf of Mexico, creating a delta, which, in time, formed St. Bernard, Orleans, and Plaquemines Parishes. The delta grew slowly eastward and eventually separated a large body of water (Lake Pontchartrain) from the Gulf of Mexico. The Native Americans who lived in the Basin called present-day Lake Pontchartrain 'Okwata' meaning 'wide-water', and they lived near the lake for centuries. Just before the dawning of the 18th century, in 1699, Indians led the French explorer/settler Pierre La Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville on a "tour" of the Basin's lakes, swamps, rivers, and bayous. Iberville eventually renamed the lake Lake Pontchartrain, after the French Marine Minister at the time, the Comte de Pontchartrain.
By the mid 1970's, most of the problems that affect the lake today were well recognized, but nobody cared----there was no move towards restoration. Small organizations of local citizens won some small battles, but were unable to win the war. Also, more than 90 government organizations had to take care of the Basin---which made restoration even more difficult. It looked as if no one would make a move to restore the lake.
But, in 1989, two professors from the University of New Orleans (UNO) named Oliver Houck and Fritz Wagner published a report called "To Restore Lake Pontchartrain". Their report proposed that an organization be set up to focus on a cleaner and healthier lake. This report paved the way for citizen-headed efforts to restore the lake, and, that same year, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation was formed.
The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, or LPBF, is a non-profit organization (it was not set up to earn money) that is headed by a 14-member board of directors, each director representing Basin parishes and agencies. The Foundation's efforts have been nationally recognized as a modern approach to clean polluted water, and hopefully the Foundation will receive government funding for its projects. The Foundation is doing an excellent job; test results already say that the lake's health is improving. The local fishermen are having better catches, pollution levels are dropping, and the lake's south shore is already open for swimming. Could this mean a cleaner lake is in our sights?
Pollution is contamination of something by chemicals, noise, etc. In this case, pollution is contaminating Lake Pontchartrain -- at alarming rates. Lake Pontchartrain is being polluted by urban runoff, which is the largest single pollution source for Lake Pontchartrain, poorly treated or untreated sewage, wetland loss, agricultural runoff from the lake's north shore dairy farms, seagrass decline due to saltwater intrusion from Mr. Go (the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet), a ship canal designed to reduce the time it takes to get to the Gulf of Mexico. Natural forces, such as Hurricane Juan, which destroyed the lake's vital ecosystem and impacted the lake, can have a large effect on the lake, too.
Most towns and cities in the Basin have faulty sewer systems with cracked lines and overloaded treatment plants. Some of these plants allow untreated or partially treated sewage to enter storm drains, which drain directly into Lake Pontchartrain. This discharges unwanted pollutants into the lake and hurts the lake's ecosystem.
In the past 60 years, over 65,000 acres of wetlands were lost throughout the entire basin. Wetlands, or marshes, are natural pollution filters, and they help keep the lake clean. If this is not stopped, then the wetlands will eventually die out, and stopping pollution will be much harder. Also, the draining and dredging, filling and channeling of wetlands for oil and gas purposes is severely damaging the ecosystem of the lake. Fish levels in Lake Ponchartrain have dropped because of wetland loss. The reduction of wetlands in the basin has endangered and threatened wildlife.
Because most of the wetland destruction is in St. Bernard Parish, the Lake Ponchartrain Basin Foundation has developed a plan to restore wetlands in St. Bernard Parish. The Parish plans to spend thousands of dollars to stop wetland damage caused by saltwater intrusion.
There is another plan for St. Bernard wetland improvement that is also being considered. In 1991, St. Bernard Parish was required by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to dump its wastewater into the Mississippi River. For years, wastewater had been sent via a canal to a pumping station that pumped the water into wetlands. This caused the wetlands around the station to become very healthy. But, the rising population increased the load on the system, and it could no longer meet EPA and DEQ standards. So, a team of Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation researchers worked with St. Bernard Parish, DEQ officials, and LSU and Tulane professors to create a plan to dump treated wastewater into swamps, improving wetland quality and quantity (amount). This project is a lot cheaper to run than the other plan, so it looks like this project will be most likely considered.
Agriculture is a major land use on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Agricultural runoff is caused by agricultural operations such as animal operations, land-clearing and agri-chemical applications. It contains pathogens (an agent, such as a microorganism, that causes disease), nutrients, toxic (poisonous) chemicals, and sediments. This runoff enters rivers, streams and bayous that feed into the lake. Agricultural runoff is blamed for making Lake Pontchartrain unsafe for swimming, and it has caused north shore rivers, such as the Bogue Falaya, once a "hot-spot" for swimming and recreation, to become hazardous.
Since the 1960's, 75 percent of the Basin's submerged (covered with water) aquatic (growing in water) vegetation (SAV) has disappeared. Vanished. Gone. To put that in simpler terms, three-quarters of all of the basin's SAV is not on this earth any more. That is way too much damage for the lake to handle.
Submerged aquatic vegetation is basically seagrass and other plant life that survive in water. SAV is extremely important for fish and shellfish because it provides a habitat and a food source. Without SAV, fish and shellfish populations would decrease rapidly, and Lake Pontchartrain's ecosystem would be devastated. Seawalls, urban development, natural forces (such as algae), and low water quality are believed to be the main causes of SAV depletion.
In 1994, the Foundation started a new project to rebuild SAV in the Basin. The program won national recognition, and hopefully the government will fund it. The goals of the project are to improve the water clarity and quality of Lake Pontchartrain, and to create SAV beds in the basin.
Natural occurrences, or natural forces, are things that pollute or harm the lake that are not manmade: they occur in nature. Hurricane Juan, the storm in 1985 that battered southeast Louisiana for five days and ravaged Lake Pontchartrain's ecosystem, was a natural force. Erosion is a natural force, too. All these natural forces lower the land levels and raise the sea level, which can cause extensive flooding throughout the basin.
Since the 1930's, companies have been dredging the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain to make money. The companies knew what the dredging process was doing to the lake, but they didn't care; they just wanted to get rich. Also, they were supposed to dredge one mile offshore, but did they? No. The companies continued to break the law and destroy the lake until 1990, when something happened that toppled the now enormously rich dredging companies.
After the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation was formed, the board of directors realized that shell dredging was severely destroying the lake. So, in 1990, the Foundation challenged water quality permits for dredging in the basin. Dredging, which had been practiced for over 60 years, had turned Lake Pontchartrain's water color very murky-brownish color, and it depleted the lake's ecosystem. Realizing what dredging had done to the lake, state legislators banned, or outlawed, dredging in Lake Pontchartrain the following year.
In the 1960's, during the Johnson administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged a canal called Mr. Go, or the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. The canal was created on land that was owned by Lady Bird Johnson. (This was called the "sweetheart deal.") The canal was built to shorten the time it took to get from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. The Army Corps of Engineers thought that this project was the best thing they had ever accomplished. In reality, it was the worst thing they could have done. Saltwater was coming up the canal and killing wildlife in the lake, throwing the ecosystem into chaos. Efforts to close Mr. Go started in the 1980's, and since then have picked up. In fact, before September 11, all the government funding was in place for the closure of Mr. Go, but all the funding went to anti-terrorism. If Mr. Go is not closed, we will never achieve our goal of a clean, healthy lake.
Lake Ponchartrain is definitely recovering. Pollution levels are lower. On the south shore, people are swimming in the lake, and the lake is again becoming a source of recreation. The lake still has some problems, such as Mr. Go and saltwater intrusion. Hopefully, those will be fixed in the near future.
Even though experts like Connie Glockner, a leader in the successful effort to ban shell dredging, say that it will take at least 100 years for the lake to become healthy, we can try to make that length of time much shorter. We can try to achieve our goal -- the cleanest lake we could possibly have.