A new alliance that spans four parishes hopes to publicize challenges facing the Vermilion River and to explore ways to clean it up.

The Vermilion River Alliance held its inaugural river “familiarization tour” this week, hitting the water with tourism leaders, government officials, educators and others for a float from the bayou’s headwaters above Arnaudville to Palmetto Island State Park south of Abbeville.

The Alliance works under the umbrella of the Bayou Vermilion Preservation Association, another nascent river conservation group, and seeks to bring together leaders from the river’s watershed, which takes in Lafayette, St. Martin, St. Landry and Vermilion parishes.

BVPA President Charles H. Wyatt said the organization plans to develop a map of access points for boaters. It also wants to erect mileage markers on all 75 miles of the river to assist recreational boaters, as well as those conducting environmental research and others marking significant historical sites.

In addition, w ater samples being taken from the river in four parishes will be incorporated into a database for use in research, Wyatt said.

“These are things that if we were only working in Lafayette Parish we couldn’t accomplish,” he said.

Local tourism officials see the river as an untapped resource.

Abbeville, for instance, does not utilize the river besides being a view for restaurants, something that Charlene Richard, Abbeville’s Main Street manager, said she’d like to change. She hopes to have canoe and kayak outfitters in town.

“That’s one of our goals, to get that on the map,” she said.

During a tour Oct. 6, the group witnessed booms used to trap debris upstream, took a boat ride at the Vermilionville folklife park, listened to presentations on water pollution by educators and learned about tourism opportunities.

The tour emphasized educating the public about keeping the bayou clean for use in irrigating crops and providing recreational opportunities. Stops included the trash boom that collects debris at the Bayou Vermilion headwaters, where Bayou Carencro and Bayou Fuselier meet above Arnaudville.

“We’re trying to stop people from throwing things on the street, which goes into the (storm drains) which goes into the coulee which goes into the river,” Wyatt said.

Most of the bayou’s pollution is fecal coliform, according to Donald Sagrera, executive director of the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District, a group that was formed in part to ensure a fresh supply of water for coastal farmers.

The bacteria originates in feces and enters the bayou from failing septic systems and farms. Trash is another major culprit, Sagrera said.

The good news is the bayou is cleaner than it has been in previous years and is now healthy enough for use as “secondary contact recreation,” or recreational boating.

“We’ve found that the water quality isn’t as bad as we thought it’d be,” Sagrera said. “But we do have a lot of cattle in Lafayette Parish along the river.”

The goal of the alliance and other Vermilion organizations, he said, is to make the river clean for primary contact, such as water skiing.

The tour stopped at Vermilionville to watch a film on water pollution and tour the historic village’s watershed exhibit that explains the bayou and its tributaries.

Vermilionville’s Recreation and Education Coordinator Greg Guidroz explained the importance of teaching young children how to reduce non-sustainable trash and recycle items before they end up in Acadiana’s waterways.

“This needs to be instructed from kindergarten through 12th grade,” he said. “We need to prepare these kids from early on.”

“Any coulee that’s going to be carrying water is going to be carrying trash,” Guidroz said. “When that water’s moving, it’s like a train of trash from the city.”

For information on the Bayou Vermilion Preservation Association, visit www.bayou vermilionpreservation.org.