Officials: Reports of bulkhead failures at False River need more study before blaming the drawdown _lowres

Advocate file photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Boaters prepare to pull a pair of tubers on False River in New Roads on Aug. 31. A drawndown of the lake in Pointe Coupee Parish is being blamed for the failure of bulkheads at properties along the lake. State officials say poor construction of the bulkheads may be to blame.

State officials told owners of property along False River at a meeting Wednesday night that any failures on some of their bulkheads were most likely caused by construction flaws and not the temporary drawdown of the oxbow lake’s water level.

But many of those landowners have said the they believe the drawdown is the cause.

Wednesday night’s meeting, which the False River Civic Association hosted at the request of affected property owners, also reignited the feud between local fishermen and recreational users of the ailing lake over how to restore the water body once known as a trophy lake for bass fishing.

“We love our lake and want it back, but even if I decide to replace my bulkhead tomorrow, I don’t feel secure we’ll have something that will last,” Hugh Smith said.

The only response state Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads, could provide was that because of the varying degrees of damage he and officials have seen so far, there would have to be additional assessments to individual properties before any answers could be given.

Bulkheads, also referred to as seawalls, are man-made barriers that prevent erosion at waterfront properties. They also give property owners more land to erect things like boat launches on the water’s edge.

Several residents have been complaining to local leaders that they’ve noticed significant damage to their bulkheads since the man-induced drawdown in September took the lake’s water level from 16.5 feet to approximately 13.5 feet.

But Chris Knotts, chief of the Public Works and Water Resources Division for the state Department of Transportation and Development, told the crowd the drawdown is not the cause of the problems they’re experiencing.

“You need to have a geotechnical study done before building a seawall,” he said. “An experienced contractor who’s familiar with the area can adjust the structure as he builds it so that it can survive the lifespan of your property.”

“The drawdown wasn’t the cause of the failure. It just exposed existing deficiencies,” he said later.

Out of the approximately 800 bulkheads along the lake’s shoreline, Thibaut said, there have been fewer than a dozen reports of damage.

The state authorized the parish to lower False River’s water level by 3 feet for six months — tentatively until March 1 — as part of a multifaceted rehabilitation effort designed to promote the growth of vegetation that stifles the buildup of thick sediment along the lake bed.

False River’s decline over the past two decades has been attributed mostly to the heavy silt buildup at the bottom of the lake that impedes the growth of vegetation that helps form fish-spawning habitats.

The drawdown also was touted as a cost-cutting measure to another restoration project underway in the south end of the lake. That project involves construction of a 16.5-acre containment dike aimed at addressing the lake’s siltation issues.

State officials were comfortable with dropping the water level by 3 feet because it matched the natural reduction of the lake’s water level during a drought in 2000.

“I’m not sure the river level has been low for the amount of time it has been low now,” Lori Rockforte, another property owner, said to the panel of officials. “How many times is the river going to be drawn down? That may prevent people from doing repairs.”

Thibaut said officials don’t know yet if additional drawdowns would be needed as the restoration efforts continue.

Troy Leblanc said he finds it hard to believe that faulty construction of bulkheads that hadn’t experienced any issues before the drawdown is to blame for the problems they’re experiencing now.

“You can do all the studies you want, but it’s simple,” he said. “Dropping the water level — that’s why the bulkheads are deteriorating.”

But Tommy Bryan, a local fishing aficionado who lives along the lake’s shoreline, took the opposite tack.

Bryan pointed out the recent accomplishments the parish has seen with the restoration efforts, including the return of vegetation since the drawdown began.

“You’re assuming the bulkheads were built correctly,” Bryan said to Leblanc. “If that’s the case, why does one neighbor’s stay good and the other person’s fail? Obviously they’re in the same area. If they were built by the same person, they should both be still standing.”

Attendees with bulkhead problems were asked to complete a survey that the leaders of the restoration project can use to perform individual assessments on each property.

“We really got a good thing going and we know it can’t continue without the public’s support,” Thibaut said.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.