Twenty-five years ago, Lake Pontchartrain was unfit for swimming, its waters so polluted college students were dared to drink a “Lake Pontchartrain,” a murky cocktail served at the legendary Nick’s Bar.
“Everyone assumed the environmental problems could not be fixed,” wrote John Lopez, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, in the anniversary issue of Lake & Coast.
Now that the lake has been restored to health, through the combined efforts of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, residents, officials and the communities surrounding the lake, public swimming has resumed on the north shore at Fontainebleau State Park and at North Beach in Slidell.
To celebrate the organization’s 25-year history and reclamation of Lake Pontchartrain, the foundation will hold the inaugural Lake Fest, a festival at Bucktown Marina from noon until 10:30 p.m. Saturday, May 10.
Reminiscent of a time when the lakefront was the area’s most popular summer recreation place, the event will feature four bands — Gal Holiday, MoJeaux, John “Papa” Gros and Bras-A-Holics, arts and crafts, children’s activities and a Back to the Beach Classic Car Show with 250 cars.
“Proceeds will enable us to continue our mission, which is the restoration and preservation of the water quality, coast and habitat of the entire Pontchartrain Basin,” said Angela Dorvin, lighthouse and development director.
The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation has had many accomplishments, including the monumental legal win that banned shell dredging in 1990, a practice that had decimated the lake’s ecology. Natural reefs that provided hurricane protection were destroyed with dredging, starting in 1920. Mountains of shells were taken from the bottom of the lake to build roads and sidewalks without considering environmental consequences. Live clams that filtered the lake water, purifying it, went along with the shells.
The original reef was 32 miles long by 10 miles wide, according to Tulane University professor Oliver Houck, who recently spoke before a Sierra Club meeting. “It wasn’t long after they took the kidneys out that the lake went bad,” Houck said.
The foundation’s first act was to legally stop shell dredging. The organization also helped ban new leases on oil and gas drilling. Its next battle was outlawing the use of gill nets, which killed noncommercial fish such as speckled trout.
Finally, in 2003, the foundation began its artificial reef program. There are now nine artificial reefs where fish “hang out” waiting for fishermen.
Having won those battles, the organization’s focus has changed to coastal protection. It also helped create swim instruction programs and certification for water safety instructors. It’s goal is to see Pontchartrain Beach reopen for swimming.
“My push is to get people into the lake with the understanding it is a natural body of water with inherent dangers,” said JoAnn Burke, education coordinator.
Most recently, the foundation created the Coastal Lines of Defense Program, identifying the major elements, natural and man-made, that protect Louisiana from hurricanes, including barrier islands, coastal marshes, natural ridges, floodgates and levees. The Army Corps of Engineers has incorporated the strategy in upgrading its hurricane protection system for the region.
LPBF established a small museum and its headquarter inside the restored New Basin Canal Lighthouse at 8001 Lakeshore Drive. Tourists, schoolchildren, lighthouse aficionados and others can visit to learn about the region’s history and ecology.
“Every time I feel really down, I think ‘here’s one we won,’ because it is really nice down there now,” Houck said about the lakefront.