To anyone who still questions whether civic activism works, go jump in the lake: Lake Pontchartrain, that is. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF) was formed in 1989, 17 years after the first swimming ban there, and began the "Save Our Lake" campaign to restore the 630-square-mile body of water for recreation and economic use. The foundation became the public's voice in advocating for action and partnerships among local, state and federal agencies, businesses and other groups. The foundation worked to improve water quality and natural habitats, not just for the lake, but also for the entire Lake Pontchartrain Basin, which encompasses 16 parishes and covers more than 10,000 square miles.
When the LPBF was founded, nobody swam in Lake Pontchartrain, which had become a brown mess. By 2006, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality had removed the lake from the "Impaired Water Bodies" list, and earlier this year, more than 2,500 athletes plunged in the lake for a 1.2-mile swim from Bayou St. John to Pontchartrain Beach as part of the Ochsner Ironman triathlon.
Was it a miracle? Not according to Carleton Dufrechou, LPBF's executive director. "It's just a bunch of consistent effort. A little bit of dedication and staying focused," Dufrechou says.
Dufrechou, who will leave LPBF this month after 17 years on the job, admits it's unusual for large bodies of water to be taken off polluted lists — the Tchefuncte and the Tangipahoa rivers, which are part of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, have been removed from DEQ's list as well. Normally, it's the other way around, but because hundreds of thousands of people decided to get involved, they were able to make a difference.
Their success wasn't attributable to their prowess at fundraising — government put up most of the money — and previous failures weren't caused by lack of government funding. More than 90 public entities have been charged with managing parts of the basin. LPBF succeeded because it could pinpoint its mission to water-quality improvement and habitat preservation, and everything it does — programs, projects and bureaucracy — has to follow those two charges.
LPBF now wants to bring its single-minded approach to solving the problem of Louisiana's disappearing coast. We can't think of a better dog to have in the fight.
For LPBF, the impetus for coastal restoration is storm protection. The coast has always been southeast Louisiana's first line of defense against hurricanes, and the foundation is promoting its "Multiple Lines of Defense" strategy, which combines natural features of the coast with manmade structures such as floodwalls and levees. On its Web site (www.saveourlake.org), LPBF lists 10 habitat restoration projects, including restoring land bridges, barrier islands and natural ridges, that it views as critical for fighting storm surges and preventing floodwall failures. Dufrechou says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must dredge materials and pump them back into coastal wetlands and divert the Mississippi River wherever possible to reintroduce fresh water and sediment into marshes.
LPBF's plan is simple. Contrast that with the Corps' $23 million and a year-and-a-half-overdue Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration study, which doesn't provide specific plans and recommendations for the coast but instead calls for more studies. In cases such as this, it becomes necessary for groups like LPBF to step up and speak truth to power. Dufrechou recalls that the Corps initially proposed raising floodwalls along the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO) rather than closing it. LPBF and others balked at the idea, demanding the Corps close the channel. LPBF got its wish. The Corps finished plugging MR-GO at Bayou la Loutre in July, ahead of schedule.
"Does the Corps know what needs to be done?" Dufrechou asks. "In my opinion, heck yeah. Is the federal government going right to the target to accomplish it? No."
That's a fair assessment. The state produced its own coastal protection plan in 2007 with specific projects and was relieved to learn recently that the Corps likely won't be the lead federal agency in coastal restoration. Likewise, LPBF realizes the federal government, even with its impressive list of experts and lengthy reports, must be held to the fire when it comes to saving our land and coast.
We commend the LPBF for continuing to give a voice to the people of coastal Louisiana.