The rejuvenation of Bayou St. John
14th October 2013 · 0 Comments
By Michael Patrick Welch
For the last couple of decades Bayou St. John has been widely considered a stagnant, merely ornamental body of water. But with the help of the state, local fisheries experts, and a renewed commitment from City Park, that particular bayou is once again beginning to teem with life of all sorts.
Bayou St. John’s perceived stagnation was initially caused when floodgates were built in the 1990s to cut it off from Lake Pontchartrain, so that the water in bayou residential areas would not rise and fall dramatically with the tides, or top over during tropical storms. Thus, the first step to re-enlivening the Bayou St. John has been to reconnect it with Lake Pontchartrain.
The major floodgates, as well as the smaller, secondary sluice gates where Bayou St. John meets Lake Pontchartrain, have recently been intermittently opened for two hours at a time, letting in new water and new fish. The man-made sandbar on the lake side of the gates has been dredged to approximately six-feet deep to welcome more water and fish.
“The project hasn’t gotten a lot of financial support from the state,” says Mark Schexnayder, deputy assistant secretary with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, who helped put together a Bayou St. John Management Plan, which also covers the City Park lagoons that receive water from Bayou St. John.
Over the last two years, Schexnayder has helped win grants and raise other revenue for the extensive new water monitoring system needed to accomplish the careful task of increasing water flow to the bayou. The water management plan will also regulate saline levels, which, if too high, could kill important plant life along the bayou. “For safety’s sake, we can’t just leave the gates open all the time,” says Schexnayder. “And the floodgates will not be opened much during hurricane season.”
The point of the plan, says Schexnayder, is to increase recreational usage of Bayou St. John. The bayou’s once questionable water is already strikingly cleaner, and a new slew of fishermen who’ve become accustomed to landing many bass, bluegills and catfish on Bayou St. John, have also reported catching flounder and speckled trout there more recently, as well as a few redfish that Schexnayder has tagged with radio transmitters and a phone number fisherman can call to report their catch.
Along with improving water flow, the Bayou St. John project also includes efforts to increase the amount of shoreline vegetation, and step up the removal of non-native species such as the rio grande cichlids. “You can put new fish into the bayou,” says Schexnayder, “but to really have them thrive you have to get the habitat right.”
The new water management system means the bayou’s banks are no longer part of the flood protection system, and the state’s levee board has relinquished control of said banks to City Park, which will now put more effort into maintenance and patrol of the bayou, particularly on the Moss Street side. At the state level, the Levee Board and Sewerage and Water Board will still maintain control of the water bottom.
“Because of the already increased usage,” says Dr. Robert Becker, CEO of City Park, “we are now looking at creating new rules for recreational use of the bayou. We are going to talk to the US Coast Guard and get them to weigh in, and hopefully have some new rules within the next six months.”
These rules may affect the many individuals and businesses now using and renting canoes and kayaks on the bayou. For insurance reasons, City Park limits boating inside the park to a designated area near the sculpture garden. As for the Bayou: “There will be no new specific legislation,” says Becker, who stresses that kayaks are not City Park’s number one priority, and that the park’s main goal is to get more people using Bayou St. John. “But according to a principle in the state constitution,” he adds, “you’re not supposed to be able to make money off of public property without the public getting some benefit—a concessions agreement or something is required. We will be looking into that.”
Schexnayder, however, says that legislation created in the 1930s determined that City Park’s jurisdiction over the bayou stops at Esplanade, and that the state has no prohibition on kayaks. “It’s just like you can’t tell somebody they can’t rent bikes somewhere and then ride them in City Park,” he says.
Becker also stressed that the majority of community complaints have focused not on kayak use on the bayou, but on the permanent mooring of boats along the bayou’s bank, which kills grass and creates hazards during bigger storms. “Once we actually publish some sort of rules,” Becker says, “the public can email the park with their views and opinions. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter for those who wish to express their views.”
Becker adds that more improvements are in the works, such as replacing the Wisner overpass starting in August 2014; within about a year, visitors to Bayou St. John will enjoy new biking and jogging paths all along the water, from Robert E. Lee down toward Esplanade. But anyone who goes down to Bayou St. John nowadays will already notice a big difference.
This article originally published in the October 14, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.