Most of the 150 people at a special meeting Thursday agreed that the primary purposes of the Baton Rouge lakes is to provide recreational opportunities and natural habitat in a city environment.
The crowd got a chance to vote on what they think is important in a master plan to be developed to improve the lakes.
Of the approximately 150 people who used electronic voting to register their opinions, most were over the age of 40, live a short walk from the lakes and use the lakes at least weekly — 44 percent said they use the lakes daily.
“People use these lakes a lot,” said Kinder Baumgardner, landscape architect with SWA Group, hired by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to draft a master plan.
About 55 percent of the participants said they use the lakes primarily for running and walking, with about 16 percent saying they bike around the lakes and 5 percent saying they focus on bird-watching.
People also were asked to vote on what they think should be the top improvements, with the winner being improving recreation, followed closely by improving the water quality and biodiversity of the lakes. The option of having a cafe or restaurant ranked lowest on several rounds of voting.
The biggest concerns about the lakes are poor water quality and pedestrian/vehicle conflicts on the roads around the lakes.
Each of the questions was meant to gauge how the public uses the lakes and what the public values about the lakes.
The Baton Rouge Area Foundation announced earlier this year it will be paying for the development of a master plan to bring the lakes back to a healthier state.
Created in the 1930s out of a former swamp, the lakes have been filling up with sediment from surrounding properties and stormwater runoff. This increasing shallowness of the lakes has caused problems with water quality, such as low dissolved oxygen that has lead to fish kills in the past.
The six lakes — City Park, University, Campus, College, Crest and Erie — are owned by LSU and the city-parish.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted a study in 2008 on possible improvements, the greatest of which was dredging to make the lakes deeper. The study got shelved, primarily because the proposed work became more expensive than the funding source would allow.
Last year, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation picked up the baton, meeting with the Corps, city and university. The new master plan will almost definitely address deepening the lakes, but could include things like expanded walking trails, improved fishing areas and strategies to keep the lakes clean.
Participants Thursday also got a brief history of what brought the former cypress swamp into what Baton Rouge residents now know as the Baton Rouge lakes. The history is important as decisions are made about the future of the lakes, said Suzanne Turner, landscape architect.
For example, as a preparation to turn a cypress swamp into what would become University and adjacent lakes, a for-profit lumber mill was set up at the edge of the dense forest.
Over the course of clearing the swamp, more than 1 million board feet of lumber was produced, Turner said. However, the stumps were left on the lake bottom either for habitat or because they couldn’t be brought up with the technology available in the 1930s, she said.
Those stumps ended up being a large problem when planners worked to try to dredge the lakes deeper in the 1980s. The stumps became such a barrier to dredging that it didn’t solve anything in terms of water quality or long-term health of the lakes, she said.
The goal for the current master plan is to come up with solutions that will last for a long time to come, Baumgardner said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.