After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently abandoned one possible solution to fix False River’s declining water quality, Pointe Coupee Parish residents have to be asking themselves: What’s next?
Most people agree False River isn’t what it used to be. Drainage canals built in the late 1980s and early 1990s channel approximately 23,000 tons of sediment into the oxbow lake every year, state officials have said.
The sediment has disrupted the 22-mile-long lake’s natural rhythm, stifled vegetation growth and made it difficult for fish to spawn.
What was once a healthy, vibrant lake full of trophy fish has deteriorated into the False River of today — a silted, murky body of water where anglers are more likely to catch a grass carp than a largemouth bass.
One possible solution floated by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was a drawdown of the lake.
By temporarily lowering False River’s water level by as many as 6 feet, state biologists said, sunlight would shine through to the lakebed, decompose muck buildups and improve False River’s water quality.
The drawdown plan was advocated as a cheap way to mimic the way bodies of water naturally regulate themselves. It would likely have to be repeated every few years as water quality fluctuates, state biologists have said.
The state was set to carry out the drawdown last fall. But Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham postponed the effort, saying he would rather work with the corps toward a more comprehensive solution.
While corps experts haven’t quite finished their decade-long study of how to fix False River’s problems, they have taken the drawdown option off the table, Pointe Coupee officials said. In a letter sent to the parish, corps engineers said that the estimated $2.6 million it would cost to study the effects of a drawdown on shoreline properties would put the project over its $5 million federal spending cap.
When that became known, Barham reiterated his stance on the drawdown issue, saying he prefers to work with the corps rather than having his agency go it alone.
So what other alternatives are out there? Ever since possible fixes to False River surfaced in early 2010, most of the discussion has been centered on either the drawdown or dredging sediment out of the lake.
Pointe Coupee Parish Administrator Jim Bello, state Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads, and others following the issue have dismissed the dredging alternative as too costly.
For years, the parish has been pleading with Louisiana’s congressional delegation to find federal money to dredge False River, Bello said, “And all we’ve heard is silence.”
Nick Sims, a project manager with the corps, recently said that dredging would raise a host of other questions.
For instance, where do you dredge: the shallows, the intermediate depths or the deeper areas? How wide an area do you dredge? What do you do with the material dredged from the lake bottom? Do you haul it offsite? Or do you use it for habitat creation in the lake? What plan will be most beneficial to the fisheries?
Those are all questions the corps is looking at right now, Sims said.
Sims also said a similar idea to dredge fertilizers and other runoff out of the University Lakes in Baton Rouge has been on hold since 2009 because of its hefty price tag.
Will False River suffer the same fate if the corps says dredging it is the only cure?
In a parish that depends on False River — its signature landmark — to prop up property values and the tax base, that question needs to be answered. What happens to the restaurants, antique stores and other businesses in downtown New Roads if False River continues its slow decline to the point where water enthusiasts, fisherman and recreational boaters find somewhere else to go?
Koran Addo covers Iberville, Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge parishes for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.