Pelicans are again gliding over Lake Pontchartrain. That is especially good news, because wherever there are pelicans, that means there are fish in the water and wherever there are fish, that means the water is clean enough for them to swim in.
It was not long ago when the prospects of any life in or over the lake seemed remote. When the lake’s Katrina-induced floodwater was pumped back into the basin it brought with it the so-called “toxic soup” made poisonous by the pollutants and waste picked up while covering the city. There were fears that the lake would be hopelessly polluted – but then nature kicked in.
Quicker than expected, the lake cleansed itself partially because the muck was diluted, which allowed grasses and aquatic life that act as filtrating agents to grow again. The transformation isn’t complete. The tiny white-shelled rangia clams whose pre-Katrina population was rebuilding once dredging had been stopped, had to start over again. The clams are important to the lake’s ecology because of their filtering ability. The clam beds are returning but it will take an estimated two years before reaching their pre-storm number. And while pelicans are back, there still aren’t as many as before. Their problem was exacerbated by hatcheries on the Chandelier Islands being clobbered by the storm.
Pollution is an age-old problem in the lake. Through the efforts of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, the lake had improved dramatically before the storm. Sewage from the Orleans and Jefferson side was being treated and diverted. Agriculture runoff from the St. Tammany side was being curtailed. The lake was once again safe for swimming. The water was noticeably clearer. Because the lake was in such an improved condition before the storm, it hasn’t had as far to go to fix itself since Katrina.
Now it’s time to take another step with our lake – to take advantage of it as an economic and recreational resource. The New Orleans lakefront is grossly underutilized. So much more could be done with it. There could be parks, restaurants, hiking trails and even small resorts, all of which could be compatible to the lake. West End is pathetically silent these days. The charming Bucktown road that fronted Sid-Mars restaurant and whose sights included shrimping boats, a quaint bridge and the picturesque Bruning home no longer exists. Instead, there’s a flood control structure with the visual subtlety of Hoover dam. The shoreline east of the Lakefront airport is even less utilized. With imagination, and careful planning, New Orleans’ lakefront can become more than just a quiet backyard for residents of the “bird streets” but a vibrant part of the economy.
What about nature? There is nothing natural about our lakefront. It is manmade; a project of the 1930s in which the shoreline was extended from what is now Robert E. Lee Boulevard. Just as engineering made our lakefront, it can make it better.
More access to the lake could actually help improve its ecology. It would be in the best interests of businesses to keep the lake clean. If there was enough economic activity, the lakefront could even create its own taxing district with funds dedicated to environmental needs.
By cleaning itself, Lake Pontchartrain seems to be calling us to take advantage of all
that it has to offer. It is time to listen to its message.