Carlton Dufrechou is that cool science teacher you never had. First of all, the classroom: a conference room overlooking the Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the southshore lakefront. Though the lake is murky because of the influx of Mississippi River water (the Bonnet Carre Spillway – which had been opened to ensure it didn’t flood the city – has since closed), it’s still a stunning sight. In the conference room: maps upon maps, including those of the Louisiana coast, some indicating what encompasses the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, others are satellite images. But most important is the man himself. He is passionate and learned, with a special gift only a few teachers have: an ability to impart his knowledge about the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation in such a way that even the most complicated of concepts (for example, the importance of salinity levels) seems as basic as multiplication tables.
This charm comes in handy more than ever. Dufrechou, the executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, is one of the leading figures in ensuring that not only the Lake Pontchartrain Basin remains healthy but that the whole coastline of Louisiana is included in efforts to reclaim that which was lost to storms, industry and human error.
Some quick stats: The Lake Pontchartrain Basin includes 22 essential habitats and the topography ranges from rolling woodlands in the north to coastal marshes in the south, with the 630-square-mile Lake Pontchartrain as its centerpiece, says a LPBF pamphlet. Its mission is to restore and preserve the basin by improving water quality, habitat protection, public access and to educate the public about the importance of the basin.
The LPBF was founded in 1989, in response to a report by professors from Tulane University and University of New Orleans calling for the establishment of an entity with the sole focus on ensuring a healthy Lake Pontchartrain Basin. Before then, more than 90 governmental and regulatory entities were in charge of managing the basin. What progress has the foundation made since then? In 1989, you couldn’t swim in the lake; by 2000 it was OK to do so again. The foundation rallied dairy farmers – one cow produces as much waste in a day as 15 people – to create waste retention lagoons, so the waste wouldn’t go directly into the watershed. (FYI: The foundation samples water once a week from 10 different stations around the lake.) Shell dredging ended in 1990. Pelicans, manatees and dolphins returned. As Dufrechou says, “Mother Nature has a way of healing herself.”
The basin couldn’t have a better guardian than Dufrechou. Or, to summarize what three longtime LPBF employees said about him: “Many people don’t know is that he’s unselfish, giving, inspiring and has integrity.”
Age: 52 Born: New Orleans
Family: I was a confirmed bachelor until four years ago: Lynn is my wife and I’m a “rent-a-dad” to two daughters.
Resides: New Orleans
Education: For most of my schooling I went to the New Orleans Academy; Bachelor’s of science in civil engineering, Tulane University; Masters in civil/environmental engineering at Tulane University.
Favorite book: I’ve been reading real technical stuff recently but I like Where is Joe Merchant by Jimmy Buffett.
Favorite movie: Key Largo
Favorite TV show: The Andy Griffith Show
Favorite food: Very juicy hamburger, medium
Favorite restaurant: Ye Old College Inn
Favorite music/musician: Jimmy Buffett Favorite vacation spot: The beach at Pensacola, Fla. Hobbies: Running, flying – I’ve had my pilot’s license since I was 17 – and I used to do more water sports, such as waterskiing and sailing.
What attracted you to the LPBF?
I have always loved the outdoors, the water and nature. It was a fluke that I found out about this job. I was working for the Corps of Engineers in the early 1990s as a project manager – and was bit of a renegade there – working on rural and storm protection projects. I heard about the foundation and the job on WWL radio. And even though I didn’t have the experience needed, I gave them a call and went in for an interview. I was hired and started in June 1992.
There are two times in my life when I wanted something so much that I could taste it. This [job] was it. I am very fortunate. It is one of the best jobs and am happy to have it.
What encompasses the Lake Pontchartrain Basin?
[For this, he brings me by a map!] The basin goes up north and east to the Mississippi borders; bordered on the west and southwest by the Mississippi River; and east/southeast towards the Chandeleur Islands in the Gulf of Mexico.
I never knew that the basin was so much land – and water. I always thought it was just Lake Pontchartrain and the immediate area. It is a 10,000 square mile watershed encompassing 16 parishes and four Mississippi counties. It is half water, half land. The environment includes rural and urban – including the state’s largest cities, New Orleans and Baton Rouge – and is home to 40 percent of the state’s population.
What are the short-term goals of the LPBF?
The short-term – as in today – is we’re watching the lake to see if we’ll get algae blooms in the summer, like it did when the Bonnet Carre Spillway was last opened in 1997. The nitrogen-filled river water can spark algae blooms. Algae depletes oxygen levels – when it grows, it starts drawing oxygen out of the water. When it dies, it robs the area completely of oxygen. This creates dead zones.
The lake went into this healthy, which will help in its recovery.
Nutrient overloads – particularly from the spillway opening – remain one of the biggest challenges for the Lake. [Ed. Note: In addition to this, the lake’s other environmental challenges are agricultural runoff and sewage from the northwest, urbanization and sewage from the north, saltwater intrusion from the east, and urban runoff and sewage from the south – where New Orleans is.]
Whom does this immediately affect right now?
Recreational and commercial fishermen. The Mississippi River pushes out the lake water, altering the salinity levels so that fish such as trout and redfish have been pushed out of the lake, past the Rigolets. Crabs will also try to stay ahead of the fresh water. The primary industry in the lake is its fisheries.
Tell me about the Coastal Lines of Defense program. There are 11 coastal lines of defense with coastal restoration and levees helping with hurricane protection. There are five types of wetlands: fresh swamp, fresh marsh, intermediate marsh, brackish marsh and salt marsh – and the goal is to create self-sustainable habitats. Among the 10 projects that will help this are restoring the Chandeleur Islands and the Bayou la Loutre Ridge, which goes across the St. Bernard wetlands. [Ed. Note: To find out the rest, go to: www.saveourlake.org.]
I saw you on TV talking about an alternative to the Bonnet Carre Spillway releasing Mississippi River water in Lake Pontchartrain when river’s water level gets too high – can you describe this alternative? Instead of directing Mississippi River water directly to the lake, adversely affecting it, the alternative would be to divert it though the LaBranche wetlands on the edge of Kenner. The marsh and the swamp would improve with the nutrients – such as fertilizers – that are in the river water.
Why should the rest of the U.S. care about the Lake Pontchartrain Basin?
The Mississippi River cuts through the U.S., and we’re located at its outlet, making our region very important to industries, including oil and gas. This area is the heart of the region’s commercial and recreational fisherman. New Orleans is also a snapshot of what will happened in other coastal cities – such as Houston – if coastal erosion isn’t addressed. If we do it right here, it can be replicated elsewhere.
What can the average person do to help?
First: If you see a piece of trash, pick it up and put it in the garbage can. That can make a tremendous difference. Second: Become aware and engaged. To make sure that better levees are built. But it’s not enough. A restored and rebuilt coastline is culturally significant and is environmentally and economically viable. Third: Vote. Be conscious of who you are voting into office – that they support building better levees and restoring coastal wetlands.
True confession: I’m not afraid of color. [Ed. Note: For LPBF’s first fishing rodeo, Dufrechou ordered 1,000 hot pink hats.]