As plans to restore the LSU lakes move forward, one aspect of the massive project looms large — saving them as lakes could mean draining them.
The six lakes — City Park, University, Campus, College, Crest and Erie — were created in the 1930s when a cypress swamp on the property was cut down. Ever since, soil from the surrounding land has been washing into the lakes, slowly filling them in to the point that they are too shallow to be healthy.
To help keep the lakes from reverting to swamp, workers could use dredging equipment to remove much of the sediment that has accumulated over the decades.
An attempt in the 1980s to dredge the lakes without draining them ran into problems because of myriad stumps left underwater after the swamp was cleared. The dredges could only cut a channel through the middle of the largest lake — not a long-term solution.
Two main options now seem to be at the forefront, said John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which is spearheading the revitalization effort by funding the planning stages.
In the first scenario, the entire lake system, which spreads through the area between LSU and BREC’s City-Brooks Community Park, would be drained while the sediment is removed. In the other, “coffer dams” would be built to wall off smaller areas at a time for dredging.
How long each scenario would take is unclear, though Spain says the best guess right now is about two years for either. Cost could also be a factor in choosing between the two, he noted.
“It’s also true at the end of the day there could be policy issues that could dictate that,” Spain said. “BREC and LSU own the lakes, we don’t.”
If the lakes are drained, what will be left behind until they refill with water will largely be muck — smelly and unsightly.
Lakeshore Civic Association President George Bayhi says his group, whose members live around four of the lakes, hasn’t yet officially met to discuss what they’d like to see done.
“Of course, everybody wants it dredged,” he said. “There may be an odor problem associated with it, but hey, I don’t think there’s anything that can be done about that, and we need to do what we need to do to do it right.”
Spain said the sediment taken from the lakes could be used to improve biking and walking paths around them. But that would make the lakes slightly smaller, he said.
“You’re going to have compromises here, and people understand that,” he said.
Even cursory discussion with people who use the lakes generates a long wish list: improve pedestrian safety and traffic flow, reduce water pollution, create a healthy ecosystem, foster better fishing. Some even suggest the best way to improve the Baton Rouge lakes is to steer natural processes towards recreating a healthy cypress swamp.
Whatever winds up being done, there does seem to be consensus that something needs to happen.
“Water quality has worsened over the years,” said Jun Xu, an LSU hydrology professor. For the past five years, Xu has directed graduate students in monitoring water quality at the lakes, looking at criteria including water and oxygen levels and pollution caused by fertilizer and sewage.
“They are all worse than four or five years ago,” he said.
The poor water quality — especially low levels of dissolved oxygen, which fish depend upon — ranks high in the mind of Mike Wood, director of inland fisheries for the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
“It’s an impaired habitat,” he said.
Sewage and fertilizer flowing into the lakes fuel algae blooms, which rob the water of oxygen. During the hot summer, the problem becomes worse because warmer water holds less oxygen. That combination in such shallow water can make it tough for fish to survive.
Wood said that until the problems are addressed, his agency is unlikely to stock the lakes with fish, which it did in the past.
“There’s just no way to stock a water body out of that problem,” he said.
If the lakes are improved, he’d like to remove the existing fish and replace them with more sports-oriented stock, such as bass, blue gill and catfish.
“We’ve got to get kids back fishing again,” he said.
He praised the foundation’s plan to reach out to people to live around and use the lakes to get everyone involved in the planning process.
“This is a resource for everybody, and everyone should have a voice,” he said.
Greg Ducote, who lives three blocks from the lakes, occasionally volunteers to pick up trash around them.
“I think first and foremost, whatever we decide, I’d like it to be a healthy ecosystem,” said Ducote, who long worked in coastal management for the state. “Lakes or swamp. Whatever we decide. They look pretty when you drive over the interstate, and they are, but they need some help in order to get healthy and remain that way.”
That means coming up with a long-term maintenance plan after the major work is done, he said.
“I think BRAF and the consultants have their work cut out for them,” he said.
Previous pushes to improve the lakes, some of which included dredging, faded in face of cost and other complications. But one effort, which involved a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, did result in a draft plan that included draining and dredging the lakes, recommendations that are driving the current thinking, Spain said.
Although the foundation is paying for the current planning phase, deciding how to fund the project itself will be part of the process over the next year. The Corps study estimated the cost at $18 million to $20 million. But Spain said the new plan will be more ambitious, which could raise the price as high as $40 million, depending on what the community decides.
Bryan Harmon, interim director of the city-parish Department of Public Works, said the team that has been brought together is a good one.
“I think we’re like everybody else. We’d like to see a viable lake system,” Harmon said. “We want to make sure anything they come up with can be maintained.”
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.