By Shannon Hood and Estelle S. Robichaux, Environmental Defense Fund
On October 24-25, 2013, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF) hosted its 11th Basics of the Basin research symposium. Scientists and researchers from academia, non-profit organizations, private consulting groups and federal and state agencies gathered at the University of New Orleans (UNO) on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to discuss the past, present and future issues of the Pontchartrain Basin. LPBF has hosted these biennial symposiums since 1992, providing an opportunity for students and established researchers alike to share and discuss the most up-to-date research on the restoration and management of Louisiana’s Pontchartrain Basin.
After opening remarks by Dr. John Lopez, executive director of LPBF, the plenary continued with comments and presentations from Phil Turnipseed of the U.S. Geological Survey; Dr. Ioannis Georgiou, Director of the Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences at UNO; and Dr. Chip Groat, President and CEO of The Water Institute of the Gulf, among others. The conference was grouped into seven general session topics, including hydrodynamic modeling, water quality, storm surge protection, river diversions, wetland restoration, the Central Wetlands Unit and fisheries. Because of the diversity of environmental concerns within the Pontchartrain Basin, broad, interdisciplinary research is essential to effective system-wide restoration and management.
Understanding the present condition of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin requires a look into the history of the lake itself. Dr. Oliver Houck, professor at the Tulane University Law School, provided the storied account of the history of Lake Pontchartrain during his keynote speech. He spoke of the lake’s days as a hot spot for recreation, as well as its decline during the years when the lake was dredged for the clam shells that lined the bottom. This dredging caused a rapid decline in the health and suitability of this lake for wildlife habitat and for recreation. A few brave souls recognized the trauma that the lake was enduring and took on the task of halting the dredging to allow the lake to begin to heal. Through years of dedication, lawsuits and creative thinking, the dredging was successfully stopped, and the healing process began.
Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation’s original research was well represented at the conference, with 14 presentations in six different sessions. Eva Hillman presented LBPF’s research into the salinity levels found within wetland soils in the Central Wetlands Unit (CWU), just west of New Orleans. Construction of the nearby Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) in 1968 allowed salt water to easily enter these previously freshwater wetlands and lead to severe deterioration of the CWU wetlands. Although the MRGO has been closed since 2009, much of the area still remains highly degraded. LPBF scientists are monitoring soil salinity throughout the CWU to inform restoration efforts, specifically re-vegetation projects.
Research conducted by LPBF scientists on Mardi Gras Pass, a new and evolving distributary of the Mississippi River, was also on display. Dr. Theryn Henkel presented preliminary research on where the fresh water and sediment from Mardi Gras Pass is going once it enters the receiving basin. Results from this study indicate that the deposition of sediment happens well before the influence of fresh water on salinity levels in the receiving basin is no longer observed, and that sediment travels further into the northern areas of the basin than it does to the south. Andreas Moshogianis presented the preliminary findings of ongoing biological assessments in Mardi Gras Pass, most notably that a range of both fresh- and saltwater fishes have been caught during these assessments, often in the same net. LPBF’s research on Mardi Gras Pass is important because it has implications for future restoration efforts throughout coastal Louisiana, as scientists and citizens work to reconnect the Mississippi River with its delta.