May 5, 2008

Lake Pontchartrain is Now Safe for Swimming

By Richard A Webster

It's safe to swim in Lake Pontchartrain.

Seriously, said Andrea Calvin, program coordinator for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.

Recent bacterial readings on both the North and South shores fell well within the safe range as defined by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

But despite these assurances, many people still refuse to dip their toes into the lake.

"I know some people think it will turn you green if you jump in," Calvin said. "But it is getting better. We just have to keep putting the good news out there for people to hear."

Unfortunately for Calvin and others who have worked decades to improve the health of Lake Pontchartrain, the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway has turned the lake into something resembling "chocolate milk" and the effects are expected to worsen, said Carlton Dufrechou, LPBF executive director.

Thick mats of algae will move through the lake in the coming weeks and potentially bloom during the hot weather months, leading to wide-scale fish kills, he said.

And nothing could be worse for a lake already suffering from a bad reputation then dead fish and algae floating on its surface.

"People don't have to worry about bacteria and fecal matter but they also don't want to swim in thick mats of algae or around dead fish if that should happen," Calvin said.

The Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway in April after heavy rains in the upper Mississippi River valleys caused the level of the river to rise. The Corps said its action would divert river water into Lake Pontchartrain, lower the level of the Mississippi and prevent flooding in New Orleans.

However, the introduction of freshwater, rich with nutrients, into the brackish lake creates a breeding ground for algae. The last time the Corps opened the spillway in 1997, it caused an algae bloom that covered more than 500 square miles, three quarters of the lake's surface.

It is not certain the same thing will occur this time but the presence of algae in the lake and the brownish water quality is expected to last throughout the summer, Calvin said.

"I don't think this will be on the magnitude of 1997 but people need to be cautious," she said.

If not for the opening of the spillway, residents of the North and South shores would be cleared to dive headfirst into the lake without fear of being "turned green," Dufrechou said.

Before Hurricane Katrina there was a significant increase in recreational activity on Lake Pontchartrain, but it all but disappeared after the storm, Dufrechou said. Boaters and fishermen began to return last year, but swimmers were rarely seen.

"The only folk using the lake on a regular basis to swim is a group of triathletes who swim every week in Bayou St. John," Dufrechou said. "But folks complain to us that no one is maintaining Pontchartrain Beach so that means that they must be using it to swim, too."

The University of New Orleans manages Pontchartrain Beach after acquiring the land from the Levee District in 1991. It is home to the UNO Research and Technology Park.

"Lake Pontchartrain is a terribly underutilized resource and if this lake were in Texas it would be a recreational Mecca and an economic engine," Dufrechou said. "I hope many of us in this region start to recognize that. It's a diamond in the rough."