Reborn on the Bayou

Bayou St. John played a crucial role in the founding and growth of New Orleans, providing faster access for early settlers and traders to the nascent city. It served as a commercial waterway for many generations thereafter, and today it’s a scenic, recreational and sometimes even spiritual resource for a string of neighborhoods along its banks. Now, this hardworking urban waterway is finally catching a break.

A dam that had severely constricted the water exchange between Lake Pontchartrain and the bayou is being removed after half a century. Scientists say that by managing the second, much more modern flood control structure between the two water bodies, Bayou St. John is poised for rejuvenation.

“It’s a success story of patience, stamina and believing in a win-win solution,” says Rusty Gaudé, a fisheries scientist with the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Sea Grant program.

Built in the 1950s, the dam was situated in the Spanish Fort area and was originally used to control flooding. But as the more sophisticated floodgates were installed just beyond it, Gaudé says, the dam “became redundant then obsolete then counter-productive.”

Eventually only one of its three gates was operable, and the structure essentially blocked significant water flow from the lake, decimating the ecosystem in the bayou and the lush lagoon system in City Park that it feeds. Now, controlled releases of water through the modern floodgates should reduce salinity levels and allow a great diversity of marine life to thrive in the bayou.

“Most of the things that will change will be invisible to the eye,” Gaudé says. “But people who use the bayou for fishing will start seeing a big difference. What people used to see in (the bayou), speckled trout, tarpon, redfish, even manatees – they all could be returning.”

Plans to remove the old dam had long been on the books, but not the money. Funding recently arrived through a federal program designed to free historic water flows from outdated dams. Gaudé says the same program could be applied to other hampered waterways in the area, including Bayou Sauvage.

“This could essentially be the poster child for a new way of having flood protection but still having the uncompromised steams (these water bodies) have had historically,” he says.