Lake champion now eyeing oil impact

Cheryl Gerber

The scramble for answers to the spewing deep-water oil well in the Gulf this year made clear that both the energy industry and the government were short on experience for handling just such a disaster. But as the situation enters a new phase, one local nonprofit is confident it has the know-how and track record to make a difference.

The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation has developed its Oil Spill Monitoring Plan and is now trying to secure funding to put that plan into action. The proposal is a long-term program that would track the impact on the environment and inform the public of restoration progress as events along the Gulf Coast continue to unfold.

“It’s straightforward tracking and monitoring and that parallels the work we’ve done in the past on Lake Pontchartrain,” says Dr. John Lopez, the foundation’s director of coastal sustainability.

The foundation is a nonprofit advocacy agency for the 10,000-square-mile watershed comprising the Lake Pontchartrain basin. That area includes 16 parishes ecologically tied to the lake itself, and it extends down to the mouth of the Mississippi River and out to the Chandeleur Islands in the Gulf. 

The foundation is best known for its work to restore the health of Lake Pontchartrain, which had long been degraded by sewage and agricultural and urban runoff, saltwater intrusion and wetlands loss. Its “Save Our Lake” campaign combined close monitoring of water conditions with advocacy and education on policies to remediate the threats to the ecosystem.

In much the same way, the proposed Oil Spill Monitoring Program would involve documenting any oil found within the Lake Pontchartrain basin as a result of the spill, developing indicators of oil spill contaminants in the natural environment and collecting water, sediment and biological data for five years. The foundation estimates the plan would cost $1.4 million per year, or $7 million over five years.

“There are many ecological questions that could come up, and we can’t cover all of those,” says Lopez. “But what we are good at is making the public aware of what we might find and helping them understand the situation.”

In addition to the similarities of the work, the Oil Spill Monitoring Plan would leverage relationships the foundation has built over the years with universities and other research partners that can bring specialized skills and their own resources to bear.

 

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