Dig Baton Rouge

Saving the Lakes

By Tara Bennett

There is a new wave of activity washing up on the shore as organizers from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF) are taking on their next project: preserving and beautifying the LSU City Lakes.

Composed of two main lakes, University and City Park, and four smaller bodies of water, the lake system is a 275-acre site, adjacent to some of the city’s best-known neighborhoods, including Old South Baton Rouge, College Town, Southdowns and the Garden District. It attracts joggers, cyclists, fishers, kayakers, picnickers, and wildlife photographers. The site of the lakes is visible from Interstate 10, and offers a rare, scenic glimpse of Baton Rouge to the numerous throngs of motorists.

While a significant recreational area to the city, it would appear the lakes are in danger of disappearing.

Stumps of the Swamp

The site was initially a swamp area, formally known as the lowland bog Cypress Tupelo Swamp, which was filled with cypress trees. In the 1930s, the swampland was turned into the lakes system as part of a public works project to employ people during the Great Depression. But since its creation, the lakes have suffered health issues stemming mostly from the shallow depth due to not being properly dug out.

“Part of the problem over the years has been one we had with cypress stumps in the lakes,” said BRAF Executive Vice President John Spain. “They didn’t remove those when they cut down the trees. What we’re facing now is a continuing deterioration of the lakes’ health because of silt that has built in parts of the lake.”

The depth in most parts of the lakes is currently two to two-and-a-half feet deep of shallow water. Due to the runoff from the urban surroundings, such as grass clippings, fertilizers and silt from yards, the lakes are unable to keep up and filter out the foreign sediment, thus becoming shallower.

“If nothing is done, they will revert back to a swamp, shallow, lots of silt, and ultimately vegetation will grow back in the lakes and we will lose them,” said Spain.

Disappearing Act

According to Spain, since that time, projects have gone in and have dug out the lakes, making them deeper, and removing most, if not all, of the stumps, but problems are still continuing due to the shallow nature of the lakes. During the summer as the temperatures rise, fish kills are created because there’s not enough oxygen left in the water.

“The biggest problem is just that it’s a shallow lake system,” said Dennis Mitchell, native of Baton Rouge and also assistant director of landscape design at LSU. “If I was going to sum up what I think is the problem, I would say it’s the fact that the lakes is part of the drainage system, and over time it gets shallower because sediment and silt is settling in the lakes.”

“We now find ourselves in a place where we need to do some work in order to save them,” said Spain.

If the lakes were to revert back to their original swampy state, many recreational activities would cease.

“It would obviously do away with recreational use of the lakes,” said Spain. “They wouldn’t be lakes, they’d be swamps. If you think about it, do people want to live on a swamp? They probably don’t. I think the beauty of them is that they are lakes, and they are places where literally hundreds of thousands of people each year enjoy recreation around them either boating on the lakes or jogging around the lakes. They’re beautiful, and I think if you can imagine if they would dry up and shallow and not be a lake you would lose what’s attractive about it.”

“To let it revert back to a swamp means you let silt back in and you let the trees naturally come up and grow, but a swamp is completely different than what it is now,” said Mitchell. “What it is now is an open body of water and a beautiful scenic area. A swamp wouldn’t necessarily be what the community would want there.”

Destination: The Lakes

Can the lakes be saved? According to Spain, it is very possible.

“I don’t think it’s any question,” said Spain. “I think the answer is absolutely. I think the question really is when we can complete a master plan, and then we will know what it might cost, and we will then have to find the money to do it. But I have no doubt in my mind that we will get this done.”

Currently, BRAF is coordinating a public engagement process – called “Destination: The Lakes” – to find a team who will build a master plan to save the lakes.

“We hope we get a lot of interest from local firms and national firms that have done similar projects across the country,” said Spain. “There are wonderful lakes similar to ours that have been done and have amenities added to them, and they’ve become a really great source of pride for those communities, and we’re hopeful that we get people who have had experience in doing this and they’ll be some from the local area and some from other places and the best of both of those will form a team.”

The city-parish, LSU and BREC have helped support BRAF’s work by helping to secure $500,000 in funding for the master plan. Interested teams will send in their proposals on how to save the lakes systems. A planning team will then be chosen and hired this summer to initiate their plan of enhancing the lakes with amenities, in balance with the goal of long-term preservation of the natural system. The planning team will make public presentations, as well as meet with residents of East Baton Rouge Parish to hear community ideas on how to improve the lakes.

“What we’re going to ask the community to do is spend some time with us in numerous meetings over the next six to nine months telling us what they’d like to have happen to the lakes,” said Spain.

Parks & Rec

Along with preserving the lakes’ health, BRAF wants to include amenities that will tap into the potential recreational elements the lakes have to offer. Those familiar with the lakes will find on any morning or afternoon that joggers share the road with traffic, due to a lack of access to walking paths.

“From a recreational side the biggest problem is there needs to be some improvements around the perimeter because of the amount of activity around the lakes,” said Mitchell. “It doesn’t really make it to where it is accommodating for recreation.”

According to Spain, BRAF wants to look at adding things to this project such as dedicated bike and walking paths that are separate from traffic, which will be both safer and provide fulltime access to people who want to run or bike around the lakes. Other amenities include beautifying the area with landscaping, adding lighting, security call boxes so people can call for assistance if they are hurt, and an area to rent boats to go out on the lake.

“The consultants we hire will give us a plan on how we implement all these ideas,” said Spain. “Whether we can do all of it, whether we can afford all of it we’ll see, but at this point we’re trying to get as many good ideas as we can.”

Doing It Right

BRAF has a starting point for the master plan based on a 2008 blueprint created by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which recommends dredging the lake to an average depth of five feet and deeper areas to cultivate healthy fish habitats. Engineers hired by BRAF are measuring the lakes’ depths and probing the lake bottoms to determine soil composition. The results of this research will aid in understanding how much sediment has to be dredged, as well as how much is needed to build the walking paths along the lake shorelines.

“Basically the next step is before you physically go out there and do anything there needs to be a planned study to determine how do we best utilize the lake, how do we maintain the lake, how do we make it better, how do we make better access to it, and that’s what the whole project is about to determine what is best for the community,” said Mitchell.

“I think at the end of the day what we’d like to see is that this project will fix the lakes and improve them and do so in such a way that they may last for another 50 years,” said Spain. “I think the nature of this is that they were swamps, they have a tendency to try to become swamps again, and so at some point you’ll from time to time have to dredge and clean it up, but that’s probably something we’ll just have to accept, but if we do it right we perhaps could get as much as 50 years before somebody really has to come in and do it again. And in the meantime we’ll have restored the lakes to the beauty they were and what they deserve to be.”

Prospective consultants must submit proposals by May 23. Representatives of BRAF, city-parish government, LSU, BREC, area homeowners and technical experts will pick the best applicants based on their proposals. The top three finalists will present their preliminary ideas in an open forum held in June, with the winning team chosen soon thereafter.

“I think it is the right thing to do,” said Mitchell of BRAF’s project. “What it does is it’s going to put appropriate land use and it’s going to help have a vision for the future of the lake system. So I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

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