Dig Baton Rouge

BR’s Biggest Garden

By Nick BeJeaux

After months of study, planning, and conceptualizing, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, SWA Group, and Jeffrey Carbo and Associates have finally revealed their plan to revive the Baton Rouge Lakes.

Also known as the LSU Lakes, the green jewel in the center of Baton Rouge is in danger of reverting into mudflats thanks to silt buildups and the shallowness of the lakes. This project aims to not only preserve the ecology of the lakes, but to also make them more user-friendly.

“It’s important to remember that these lakes are not a natural system; they are man-made,” said Kinder Baumgardner, President of the SWA Group, at BRAF’s public meeting last week. “They are a garden that looks like nature. From the time they were first built, they didn’t really work—they weren’t designed.”

Baumgardner pointed to some photos of the lakes taken in 1929, around the time they were first completed, which looked drab even for a black and white photo. He said that back then, nobody designed anything meant for jogging, paddleboarding, or kayaking, much less anything with the natural ecology in mind. Soon after the lakes were completed, algae blooms—which caused water deoxygenation and, consequently, fish kills—all but ruined the natural balance of the Lakes.

Renderings of what the Lakes should look like after the project’s completion show more paths along the shore, new promenades, bigger parks, an abundance of habitat for native wildlife, improved water quality, and even a beach.

“Things have changed; people do much more activities outdoors, and we have to keep up with the times,” said Baumgardner. “Also, those problems in the past—fish kills and algae blooms—are still happening today, and this project is all about fixing those problems.”

Baumgardner cautioned that the current state of the Lakes will not get better on their own and that the city has to act soon if it wants to keep the balance of nature and urban sprawl intact.

“We need to keep reminding people that the Lakes are at a tipping point,” he said. “When I went to LSU in 1980, Campus Lake was half full of willows, soil, and debris. The rest of the Lakes are going to do the same thing if we don’t act.”

In an Interview with DIG, Baumgardner went into more detail on how the project will improve the quality of the water and repair the environment using three biofiltration systems.

“The first, which will be the biggest piece of infrastructure and handles the biggest problem, will be located at the north end of the Lakes near Bayou Duplantier,” he said. “It’s an engineered structure, but looks like landscape. What it will do is capture the first flush of water that comes off a rain event. That flush is full of sediment and oil, but also nitrogen and phosphorous which really contribute to nutrient loads that lead to algae blooms.”

That flush will be run through a treatment wetland, into a pipe, and then into Corporate Canal to connect with Bayou Duplantier. Eventually, plants, algae, and microbes that naturally occur in the bayou will break down these compounds, mitigating pollution of the larger lake system.

Similarly, the second and third systems use extensive treatment wetlands but along the shores of lakes to catch and filter runoff from the banks, nearby roads and yards. Baumgardner says that despite the apparent simplicity of these systems, their results in other projects cannot be denied.

“We did a project a few years ago using similar systems on sewage treatment,” he said. “It takes water that isn’t even safe to touch and cleans it to the level that you can swim in it. So we have a lot of experience with these kind of wetland systems and know how to design them to accomplish our goals.”

While the physical design of the project is detailed, to say the least, the plan for funding the project—and even putting a final price tag on it—is in the weeds. However, BRAF Executive Vice President John Spain did say that the dredging of Phase One alone is expected to cost between $20 million and $25 million. Additionally, the legislature was able to earmark $3 million in the state construction budget for the project and it could receive another $10 million in “Priority 5” funding, but it could be more than a year before BRAF sees a dime of it.

Even after it is completed, there will be a cost over time for the project. Spain says that BRAF has yet to figure out how to fund maintenance for the Lakes, but believes that plan will involve all the parties that have their hands in the Lakes.

“We don’t know, but that is the critical question,” he said. “When we invest this amount of money and time into a project it needs to be maintained. The partners who own the lakes—LSU, the city of Baton Rouge, BREC and the residents—need to understand that is critical. How we do it, we don’t know. It could be a property tax, it could be a levy, it could be any number of things; but we don’t need the answer right now. What is important is what you asked—will there be a plan—and the answer is that we have to [have one].”

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