“Historically speaking, the bayou was the recipient of a lot of things,” LSU Sea Grant scientist Rusty Gaudé said at a recent meeting of the Greener Bayou St. John Coalition. And the room filled with the bayou’s old dirty secrets.
One person said, “sewerage.” Another said, “housing debris.”
Cherie Faget, Parkview Neighborhood Association Representative, said, “It was a dumpster.”
Faubourg St. John resident Eileen Duke said that decades ago, a neighbor told her that it was tradition to dump cars in the bayou when owners were done with them.
Ever since the notorious Robert E. Lee Blvd. “waterfall” structure was removed in January of last year, columns of water from Lake Pontchartrain have been allowed to enter the long-strangled waterway.
“Dams, manmade dams, are just unhealthy for ecosystems. For all sorts of reasons,” Mark Schexnayder, a marine biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said at the meeting.
Scientists hope that oxygen, aquatic vegetation, and pregnant fish will make their way up the bayou from the lake and populate it with a new regime of life.
The topic of the meeting was what neighbors might do to facilitate that life, including creating fingers of wetlands beneath bridges and bank side barriers to halt the easy roll of cars into the water. Floating islands of aquatic vegetation were also suggested.
Much has been said about the Greener Bayou St. John Coalition’s effort to regulate the boats and the festivals along the banks of the bayou. Some neighbors want the boats impounded and tighter permitting put in place for festivals on the public land along the bayou. Less attention has been paid to the group’s advocacy for a healthier ecosystem, which, according to Musa Eubanks, was his group’s original concern.
At the meeting, Eubanks asked scientists to explain how the lake water is taken into the bayou and how operators of the system were making sure it was safe for both residents and the health of the ecosystem. He and other neighbors were alarmed last month when a sharp rise of lake water filled the bayou to its banks in about four hours.
Schexnayder assured residents, “They don’t open the gates and then leave them unattended…They err on the side of safety. I agree with them one hundred percent.”
Engineering firm Burk Kleinpeter, Inc, which wrote a 2011 report on Bayou St. John water management, is under contract to draw up a protocol for opening and closing the gates at Lake Pontchartrain. It will consider optimal rates and levels of lake water for the creatures of the bayou.
Schexnayder, who is assisting in the management plan, acknowledged that there are a lot of variables in the lake to contend with, especially the salinity factor. But, he says, “This isn’t a nuclear power plant. … It’s a natural system. We’re going to try to restore as much natural function to it as we can.”
Rusty Gaudé, a scientist with LSU Sea Grant, noted that full “restoration” is impossible. “The origin of Bayou St. John was really just a crevasse in the river,” he said. 2000 years ago, water coursed through a break in the Mississippi River bank and into Bayou Metairie. It then emptied into Lake Pontchartrain via Bayou St. John or, during high waters, spread from the bayous into swampy places in the area.
“We’re not going to flood Broadmoor again,” Schexnayder said about the restoration.
The bayou that was once Mid City’s favorite trash receptacle has hung on long enough to become the neighborhood’s treasure. Compared to Bayou Metairie or Bayou Gentilly, both of which are covered in asphalt, Bayou St. John is a survivor.
And if a bold dream for the city becomes reality, the bayou might be a pioneer of urban design, too. The Greater New Orleans Water Plan, created by a team of scientists and designers from LSU to the Netherlands, says that the city would sit a lot prettier if there were more urban water features, for more reasons than aesthetics. One of the main principles behind the plan is that dry ground leads to “water and soil imbalances.” That accelerates the sinking of a city dangerously close to the sea.
So maybe the Greener Bayou St. John Coalition meeting is a look into the future of a much more watery city: one where a neighbor reports “a large school of redfish north of the Esplanade Bridge” while others decide whether their floating gardens should take the shape of a fleur de lis.