By Quinn Welsch
Before the LSU Lakes are restored, they could become a giant mud pit. It all depends on how planners tackle the problem of dredging Baton Rouge’s biggest bodies of still water.
The future of the lakes was the topic of the night in Baton Rouge earlier this month, as about 200 people filled the E. J. Ourso Business Education Complex at LSU during a public hearing on potential solutions for renovating them from the Houston-based SWA Group, the landscape consultant company hired by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF).
After years of sediment run-off, the lakes have been receding into a swamp-like nature. As iconic as swamps are of Louisiana culture, they are unable to support the LSU Lakes’ current ecosystem and certainly not the property value of the many homes that grace their eight-mile shoreline.
With approximately 815,000 cubic yards of sediment to dredge from the lake (enough to fill Tiger Stadium and then some) the big question is how to restore the lakes.
According to the SWA Group, the current options include:
– Hydraulic dredging: an expensive technique that was used in the ‘80s, but ultimately failed.
– Small dams: A fairly expensive technique of damming numerous sections of the lake and then dredging.
– Large dams: This technique would divide the lake into just a few sections before dredging (less expensive than small dams).
– Drainage: The fastest and cheapest method that would provide the most flexibility with restoring the lakebed. The problem: it will turn the lakes into a mud pit.
Depending on which method is used, dredging operations could take anywhere between 18-24 months, said Kinder Baumgardner, a landscape architect with SWA Group.
Another challenge is deciding what to do with the dredged material. Some ideas include creating small islands or aquatic habitats throughout the lake. The alternative is to ship it elsewhere, which could cost tens of millions of dollars, according to BatonRougeLakes.org.
Before any options are chosen, the SWA Group’s engineering team will need to do some lengthy planning. They made clear that the meeting only highlighted the different options that are available.
“We’re just trying to ask questions,” Baumgardner said.
The team is expected to bring forth some initial recommendations plan this spring, said John Spain, executive vice president of BRAF.
“I’m thinking the dredging would probably start in late 2016 or 2017, if you got the funding, and that would be pretty quick for a public project,” Spain said. “The next challenge is identifying how much it costs and the sources of money.”
BRAF anticipates a $30-to-$40 million budget, though it all depends on the final recommendations, Spain said.
Rebranding the City
Among the SWA Group’s other potential targets were increased water quality, pedestrian-vehicular conflicts and signage around the lakes. The lake renovations will likely combine different degrees of cultural, ecological and recreational framework to make those targets a reality, Baumgardner said.
The meeting highlighted the project as an opportunity to rebrand the city with a healthy environment, and consequentially, a healthy population. The project could provide the lakes with an entirely new look, including a pavilion, educational facilities or cafes and restaurants, Baumgardner said.
During the meeting, Baumgardner asked the audience of about 150 people to vote on what issue they felt was most important to lake quality by using an electronic voting device provided to each person. The majority of the audience voted in favor of recreational activities – with an emphasis on walking and running – over increased biodiversity, cafes or restaurants and improved water quality. (A second vote revealed nearly the same thing, but with a boost to the biodiversity option.) The voting devices also showed that most of the audience was at least 41 years old, lived within a five-minute walk to the lakes and used the lakes on a daily or weekly basis.
But those plans are complimentary, Baumgardner said. The future of the lake itself is the top priority, he said.
“We don’t want to make a carnival,” he said. “We need to scale these things so they solve the problems here.”
Since their creation in the 1920s and 1930s, the LSU Lakes have had reoccurring problems due to sediment runoff. University Lake, the deepest of the six lakes, only has a depth of about 6.5 feet – Shaq could comfortably touch bottom and still flash his famous grin. Over time, that depth has decreased, creating murkier water.
A dredging project in the 80s attempted to relieve the lakes, but was cut short when engineering equipment encountered the numerous stumps on the lakebed. The project amounted to “a mere Band-Aid” to the long-term problem, said former LSU landscape architect professor Suzanne Turner.
In 2008, an Army Corps of Engineers report recommended deepening the lakes and installing tubes to flush them out to keep them oxidized.
Today, the goal is to make sure the same meetings and discussions on lake quality don’t reoccur in another 30 years, Baumgardner said.
“This must be a plan that acknowledges the forces of nature, not harnesses them,” Turner said.
Another meeting on the LSU Lakes will be held on Thursday, December 11, at the LSU Cotillion Ballroom.