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Spanish Lake basin faces dual threats of drainage and BR loop tollway: coastal implications ignored.

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The stumps of baldcypress trees in this photo in the upper portion of the Spanish Lake system were alive before Andrew Jackson shut down Bayou Manchac.

The stumps of baldcypress trees in this photo in the upper portion of the Spanish Lake system were alive before Andrew Jackson shut down Bayou Manchac. (Photo from The Advocate)

Bayou Manchac was historically an important distributary that conveyed river water from the Mississippi River east toward Lake Maurepas. This bayou, once called “Rive d’Iberville” was seasonally navigable and formed a shortcut to New Orleans via Lake Pontchartrain.  

For that reason, Andrew Jackson dammed Bayou Manchac at the river in 1814, to prevent the British from gaining a backdoor entrance into New Orleans.

Before being severed from the river, this distributary helped nourish the Manchac swamps surrounding Lake Maurepas, the same swamps that were memorialized by photographer Julia Sims, and that are now dying from salt water intrusion and lack of nutrients and sediments from the river. Bayou Manchac also nourished and provided hydrologic exchange for the Spanish Lake basin.  The latter is a 10,000 acre swampforest ecosystem south of Bayou Manchac that has become impounded, hydrologically strangled and rendered largely dysfunctional by surrounding residential and industrial development.

Shutting off Bayou Manchac was arguably the first domino to fall in the decline of the entire Pontchartrain Basin, just as damming Bayou Lafourche triggered the ultimate collapse of the Barataria and Terrebonne basins.

The western third of Bayou Manchac has largely silted in but the footprint of the beautiful old meandering watercourse is clearly marked by baldcypress trees occpying the former channel.  The historic channel starts at River Road at the boundary between East Baton Rouge and Iberville Parishes and travels east along this boundary about eight miles to the Ascension Parish line.  At that point, the channel becomes navigable by small boat and continues on to where it merges with the Amite River at Livingston Parish.

For many years I have argued that Bayou Manchac could and should be reconnected to the river and that a spring pulse of river water should once more be allowed to flow eastward toward Lake Maurepas, flushing and rejuvenating the now stagnant watercourse. The cost of this reconnection should be funded under a truly comprehensive coastal sustainability program.

Among many other benefits, reconnecting Bayou Manchac would finally bring East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Iberville Parishes (with Livingston) to the coastal “table.”  These parishes are not officially considered “coastal” but from a functional standpoint they are.  As things stand now, residents and officials of these parishes, who should be allies in the coastal crisis, don’t have a dog in the fight.  

Reconnecting Bayou Manchac to the river with a control structure could result in four important benefits in no particular order: (1) adding a pulse of sediment-rich spring river water  to the Manchac swamps that are dying for lack of nourishment; (2) restoring the health and water quality of an historic bayou that has degenerated into a stagnant ditch prone to backwater flooding from the Amite; (3) relieving local flooding by the installation of a reversible pump  at the control structure that would under local flood conditions pump excess bayou water “backwards” into the river; and (4) providing a means to fill the stagnant Spanish Lake basin during the spring and to drawdown the basin during smmer and fall for cypress tree regeneraion.  

After considerable technical lobbying by a few persistent coastal visionaries, the concept of reconnecting Bayou Manchac squeaked into the 2006 LCA coastal plan.  Unfortunately that plan was dramatically scaled back by the Bush administration, before being authorized in 2007. Nevertheless, the concept of rejuvenating Bayou Manchac and Spanish Lake remains viable, although perhaps on life support.  

Aarticle by John McMillan in the March 27 Advocate reports that Iberville Parish wants to drain Spanish Lake, raising legitimate environmental concerns that various parish and regional plans are under consideration for the area, none of which may acknowledge the big picture, including reconnecting the bayou.  Frank Bonifay, with Alligator Bayou Swamp Tours, is especially concerned. Frank’s passionate and long-held vision for participating in the restoration of Spanish Lake is very much at stake, as well as the ecotourism business that he and co-owner Jim Ragland have nurtured for many years.  

spanishlakes_032909

An ongoing study by Les Waguespack with the Shaw Group was mentioned in McMillan’s article.  Apparently this is a major regional planning effort begun by the corps that includes Spanish Lake, Bayou Manchac and Bayou Braud.  The April 14-15 meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) in Baton Rouge (see Calendar) will feature a discussion of this study.  

Photo from Advocate

Photo from Advocate

Now for the other threat to Spanish Lake. An additional article in the March 27 Advocate by Greg Garland described a public meeting held this past week in Addis to discuss alternate routes being considered for the proposed the I-1o/I-12 highway loop project to bypass Baton Rouge.  The photo accompanying the article appears to show alternative routes bisecting Spanish Lake.  

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) is now a partner with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration.  I wonder whether the coastal implications of this massive highway project are even being considered?

Addendum: Just before publishing I received the following message from Paul Orr, with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN). 

Swamp Draining About Money, Not Restoration.

Dear len,
The truth is beginning to come to light. In an Associated Press article it was made clear to me that this is what is happening:
A landowner has threatened to sue the Iberville Parish Council if they do not lower the water levels in the Spanish Lake Basin.
Excerpt from an Iberville Parish Press Release:
“Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. had three reasons for taking this action:… 3. Landowners owning more than 9,000 acres of property surrounding
the Spanish Lake have threatened to sue Iberville Parish…”

This landowner wants to use his property as a mitigation bank to sell mitigation credits.

This land owner wants his Cypress Tupelo Swamp to dry out and be converted to bottomland hardwood forest because bottomland hardwood forests are more valuable for mitgation porposes.

This action by Iberville Parish has nothing to do with restoring ecosystems and everything to do with making a landowner more money.

Here is an excerpt from the AP article:

“Scott Nesbit, a wetlands ecologist representing landowners who hold 6,300 acres in Iberville Parish, said it would just turn the clock back, letting oaks and other hardwoods return to much of the area covered for more than 50 years by cypress-tupelo swamp.”

“One of his clients sells mitigation credits – essentially, getting paid to restore wetlands for a developer who wants to fill wetlands elsewhere in the same watershed – and the other plans to [sell mitigation credits]. In the Bayou Manchac watershed, there is more demand for bottomland hardwood credits than for swamp, Nesbit said.” 

I would add that all of the scientific evidence shows that these areas were historically Cypress Tupilo swamp. Most of the young cypress trees in the area are 100 years old or more and sprouted after the old growth Cypress was cut. Some of the old-growth Cypress left in the area date back over 2000 years. Cypress Tupelo swamps don’t just pop up in 50 years, the science is clear about that and I would reference the Science Working Group report “Conservation, Protection and Utilization of Louisiana’s Coastal Wetland Forests” for that.

Also, in a previous e-alert I called the Corps of Engineers project that was in progress the “Bayou Braud, Spanish Lake, and Alligator Bayou, LA Ecosystem Restoration Project.” It was correctly pointed out to me that this project has been officially combined into the larger “Amite River and Tributaries, Bayou Manchac Watershed Project.” The same issues will be addressed and this is the project that I was referencing.

We will continue to keep you updated.

Sincerely,
Paul Orr

Len Bahr

Addendum: John McMillan wrote the following update on this issue for the Advocate on March 29.

Addendum 2: Greg Garland wrote the second update on this issue for the Advocate on April 2. As Garland reports, a decision has been reached to open the control structure at Bayou Manchac to lower water levels in Spanish Lake.  This decision was made by Lee Ourso and Tommy Martinez, Iberville and Ascension Parish presidents, respectively.  I’m curious about the timing, i.e., why the decision was made in early Spring rather than in June.

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  1. So attractive! I like the earthy & classic tones of the wedding! I am so stealing the succulent idea. Stunning bride, handsome hubby & bridal party. Astounding images as generally Tammy!

  2. Recently been visiting this blog for a time now.

  3. Concerned Citizen says:

    I have heard that the land affected by this recent change will be considered for the growing of Chinese Tallow Trees. I hope this is not the case as this is an extremely invasive species and this action will devastate the area. Not to mention the propery of land owners whose properties border those involved in this debate.

    If this is the ultimate goal of this project I recommend you read the following article by the USDA and NRCS. http://www.hear.org/pier/pdf/nrcs_plant_guide__triadica_...

    Because of the result of the toxicity of this invasive weed, wildlife and native plants will cease to exist in this area as they have for thousands of years.

    Interesting!

  4. Anonymous says:

    "trubutary"–duh, my bad–need more sleep. Reconnection is doable–there maybe years when the River is high enought for gravity to divert some water and you can always employ siphons and pumps to add more. Question is $/cfs and whether it's the most feasible way to spend restoration $. For, Spanish Lake and the surrounding swamps, which is a remnant topographic bowl within the regional east-bank Miss. River alluvial floodplain, the question is what is to be gained from "watering the bowl" from the Miss River. The bowl gets 50+ inches of direct rainfall a year plus some runoff. If the bowl was managed dry–at say el. 3 ft (it's managed at 5 ft under the "inundation" scenario)–it could still received quite a bit of nutrients and fine sediment if it were allowed to be periodically "watered" from backwater (when discharge from Bayou Fountain, Ward's Creek, and Amite River backs-up). This management approach is probably more consistent with a natural process. Of course if we want a true natural process, we'd let the Miss River just silt the bowl in.

  5. new here – 2nd half of post dropped off

  6. Anonymous-
    I understand that Iberville navigated Bayou Manchac to te gulf with native guides in 1799. I think that was only ossible during the spring, however. I've read that the idea of rconnecting the bayou to the river was contemplated for commercial navigation until railroads took over.

    I want to see a legitimate hydrologic study done because experts I've talked to don't rule out reconnection.

    I would take issue with your use of the term "tributary" in referring to Bayou Manchac, which, like Bayou Lafourche and Bayou Plaquemines on the west bank were all "distributaries" forking off from the trunk stream. Tribtaries are collecting streams in the watershed; distributaries only occur in deltas like south Louisiana.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Upper Bayou Manchac was not a significantly naviagable tributary by the time of European settlement, as it and the Spanish Lake "bowl" were in the process of in-filling–like the rest of the regional Miss. River alluvial valley. As a previous blogger noted, this watershed received Miss R. floodwaters only when the River was at a very high flood stage Upper Bayou Manchac has been a "perched" or dry stream during the summer/fall for 200 years. If the natural levess of the Miss. River had never been augmented, Spanish Lake would have probably completely silted in by now.

    The stream bed elevation and very narrow channel of Upper Bayou Manchac make it an expensive and hydraulically inefficient way to convey Miss River into the Lower Amite River/Lake Maurepas system. A Miss R. diversion (may require a pump) would spill out into the "Spanish Lake" bowl and might contribute freshening/nutrients/circulation–but it might also contribute to further infilling–similar to the Atchafalaya Basin. If existing cooling water from the Entergy plant or other source could be used–this might make the economics more attractive.

  8. Scott Nesbit says:

    Thanks again for the blog and we hope to work with you soon on either project!

    Scott Nesbit, President, NRP, LLC.

  9. Scott Nesbit says:

    We do not want to hurt the Alligator Bayou Tour business, but we do not think that it is OK to adversely impact 6,300 acres for a "one hour tour". The impacted landowners have the right to restore their land if it has been damaged for over 50 years.

    In regard to the fresh water diversion for Bayou Manchac, it would be wonderful project and NRP will fully support it in any way. The recommendation to open the existing water control structure Alligator Bayou only complements the larger fresh water diversion project.

  10. Scott Nesbit says:

    The only reason we can see at this time why Alligator Bayou Swamp Tours objects to lowering the water level by opening the water control structure (unless threatened by high water from Bayou Manchac), is to allow for the boat tours up Alligator Bayou. This tour goes 4,800 feet up the single dredge channel. For this one trip, they want to permanently flood 6,300 acres? There is a large levee adjacent to the Alligator Bayou Dredge channel that people drive in cars and trucks. One can drive down the levee and see the same view as in the Tour Boat.

  11. Scott Nesbit says:

    Also, Mr. Orr is in mistaken thinking that we want to replace all of the flooded areas with bottomland hardwood forest because there is more demand for this ecosystem type. What I was telling Ms. McConnaughey at the AP is that there is always more demand for bottomland hardwood forest mitigation credits because cypress swamp is less impacted by development. The USACE does not easily permit wetland impacts, especially the low cypress swamp. Within the Spanish Lake basin, especially the area not drained by Frog Bayou, the land has many old relic ridges that may be subsiding slowly. These ridges are a typically one to three feet higher than adjacent areas. These areas were historically bottomland hardwood that wove through the cypress swamps. Since everything below 5.6 feet was underwater, there will be both types of restoration if the water control structure is lowered.

  12. Scott Nesbit says:

    If the two additional mitigation banks get approved, the Spanish Lake basin will support over 10,000 acres of protected wetlands under a conservation servitude. By the way, Frank Bonifay also has a mitigation bank. So we do not understand Mr. Orr's concern about mitigation bankers.

  13. Scott Nesbit says:

    In regard to Mr. Orr's comments, NRP has always worked for existing or potential mitigation bankers in the Spanish Lake Basin. We have never hid this issue. Just like we think ecosystem tourism such as Alligator Bayou Tours has an important role to facilitate good ecological planning, mitigation banking also has a role. We think it is long overdue that landowners having impacted wetlands can restore them in the free market system. Also, the cost of wetlands mitigation makes developers think twice avoiding wetland impacts or making wetlands a part of their development plans. If developers can not avoid wetlands, they will be required to mitigate.

  14. Scott Nesbit says:

    We have never seen any studies done by Alligator Bayou Tours or Kelly Hagar at Riparian Consulting directly addressing the hydrology or the proposed ecosystem decline if the control structure is open more often. We still have not seen any such study or supporting data. We do not understand why they say they will be out of business if the water control structure is open as high water occurs in Bayou Manchac regularly during late winter, spring and for fall storms. Also, most of their education is done at their dry site with the pool and alligator pit. We do not understand.

  15. Scott Nesbit says:

    Thus, we concluded that the primary cause of ecosystem decline behind the water control structure was permanent flooding. Logging and internal water impoundment greatly facilitated the decline, but the primary cause was flooding.

    Last summer, Ascension Parish asked my client, Lago Espanol Wetlands Mitigation Bank, if a drainage ditch could be cut through an historic old oak ridge on Lago property to try to drain Big Swamp. Big Swamp faces Ridge Road south and the landowners were complaining about continued flooding. We came to the Parish Council Drainage Board meeting and told them that it would not do any good cutting a ditch across the ridge to help drainage unless the water level behind the water control structure at Alligator Bayou was lowered.

    At that time Frank Bonifay and his consultant Kelly Hagar of Riparian, stated that the ecosystem would be heavily damaged if the water control structure was open and the water levels lowered. We did not understand this, and have just been trying to get at the core of their concern. We respect Alligator Bayou and what they have done for educating the public about wetlands.

  16. Scott Nesbit says:

    The summary of our finding identified the fact that the large drainage project conducted in 1953, which included the water control structure at Alligator Bayou, is the root of the ecosystem decline. Closing the structure and holding water back in the basin regardless of the reason, plus the new dredge channels of Bayou Paul and Bayou Braud really altered the surface hydrology.

    Apparently as soon as the water control structure was built, it was closed to facilitate recreational access to the area via boat. That is still the issue. However, after over 50 years of holding back water, the ecosystem below 6 feet converted from a seasonally flooded ecosystem to a permanently flooded ecosystem. The oak trees and acorns, a primary stable for deer and other mammals, rotted and died in locations of permanent flooding. Regeneration of every tree species including baldcypress was stopped. Tree growth rates probably slowed due to the constant flooding. Above the 7.0 foot elevation, the ecosystem decline is reduced, but over 5,000 acres were impacted.

  17. Scott Nesbit says:

    We published the findings in 2006-2007, and gave everyone access to the material including Alligator Bayou Tours, Parishes, etc. It was online. We went in front of Iberville and Ascension and presented our finding. We always told every party that we worked for potential mitigation bankers. We asked for comments, we got none.

    We sent a copy of the report to the US Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the LA Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the LA Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. We have received letters of concurrence to our findings from the La Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the La Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. We have not received anything from the US Army Corps of Engineers in writing. NRP has also conducted taken Ms. Karen Soileau of the US Fish and Wildlife Service on a site visit as well as the Pontchartrain Levee District representatives from The Shaw Group.

  18. Scott Nesbit says:

    First, my wetlands consulting company, Natural Resource Professionals, LLC (NRP) was asked to conduct a study on behalf of a group interested in buying 2,300 acres in the Spanish Lake Subbasin. Their intent was to establish a mitigation bank if there was a way to truly restore the ecosystem. Our second landowner has owned 2,300 acres, including land around Spanish Lake itself. They have not done any timber harvest and have noticed very slow growth over the past 30-40 years and no regeneration. They also stated that almost all of their land is now flooded. They also wanted to know what NRP thought about the ecosystems.

    To do the study, we structured a comprehensive study. We collected all the available information we could, interviewed residents, talked to Iberville and Ascension Parish, collected historical and current aerials, established a sampling protocol on the site for vegetation analysis, compiled results and made analysis. We did not know what to expect.

  19. Scott Nesbit says:

    Len, thanks for getting this blog together. As someone who is doing the ongoing research in the Spanish Lake Subbasin, I wanted to correct a few small errors and add to the dialog. I also have a question or two for anyone that has some information regarding the historic connection of Bayou Manchac to the Mississippi River.

    Paul Orr of RIVERKEEPERS writes in above with some quotes of an AP Article. I have not seen the article, but I did speak with Janet McConnaughey of the AP last week in a phone interview. I have asked her to send me the orignal text because there seems to be some misunderstanding. I will return to this issue.

  20. WetlandScientist1 says:

    I also like how he bashes wetland mitigation banks, BUT OWNS ONE HIMSELF!! What is really so wrong with improving a wetlands function and value and preserving it in perpetuity anyway?!?!?! I could go on forever about the pure hypocrisy that Frank Bonifay lives through, but I'm tired of writing so I'll stop now. MAY THE TRUTH BE HEARD!

  21. WetlandScientist1 says:

    This so called "environmentalist" Frank Bonifay owns and operates several oil and gas pads in the Spanish Lake basin, which are not so environmentally friendly….I bet most of his followers know nothing about that either!! I just wish people could see through his emotional crap and realize that the only thing he is trying to save from loss is his personal income! I especially like how he has given two specific quotes to different news crews that show how much of a hypocrite he really is. first he said "If the locks are opened it will put me out of buisness" then the next day there is a quote from him saying "This is a treasure, and we can't play God with it for our own private benefit." HELLO, artificially holding water where it should not naturally be so you can float your tour boat is PLAYING GOD FOR PRIVATE BENIFIT!!!

  22. Thanks, Andy. I agree with your comments. I am obviously not an authority on the hydrology of Spanish Lake and I’m in favor of the seasonal drawdown of a system that is obviously dysfunctional at present. I just want the folks studying the system (e.g., Les Waguespack) to be openminded re alternative ways to rejuvenate this “diamond in the rough” that could be such a jewel and that is so close to Baton Rouge.

    • WetlandScientist1 says:

      Thank you Dr. Nyman for providing some educated input on the subject matter. There seems to be so little of that from Frank Bonifay's opposing group (The only opposition!). I wish everyone really knew, and could truly understand the simplicity of the problem. The system has been kept as nothing more than a reservoir for the last 50 years so that's why everyone thinks it is supposed to be like that, they don't understand what the NATURAL hydrology really was before the water control structure was built. I also wish that everyone could realize that the RIVERKEEPERS and Sierra CLUB are backing Frank Bonifay and his completely uneducated opinion because HE PAYS THEM TO!!!

      • WetlandScientist1 says:

        He pays off everyone and usually gets his way like the little spoiled brat that he is. Trust me, I know, the officer that arrested me for fishing "NEAR" Bonifay's land told me that he had to do it because Bonifay donated lots of money to the Ascension parish sherrifs department, and if he didn't he would get in trouble by his supervisor when Frank called and complained, as they always do! The officer informed me that I was correct, and was technically not trespassing, but said the only way to get out of it was to go to court several times and explain what happened to the judge. That's what I did, and as I expected, I was not trespassing. The arresting officer also informed me that I was not alone, and that they were called out several times a week to arrest people for something that is complete B.S.!!!

        • Judith Pennington says:

          I don't know where "Wetland Scientist1" gets his information, but he is completely wrong in his claims and obviously has an agenda of his own. Frank Bonifay pays neither Ascension Parish sheriff's department, nor the Sierra Club, Riverkeepers and LEAN. What a crazy notion. Neither does Frank Bonifay have oil and gas wells. He owns 82 acres of property that was once an oilfield pit, as he was forced to buy this property when he bought 1500 acres of old-growth trees in the swamp. He owns the surface rights, not the minerals, and is developing none of it. In addition, his information is far from uneducated. Besides living and working in Bluff Swamp for the past 20 years, Bonifay relies on LIDAR elevation maps, the journal entries of navigators Pittman and Campbell, and much else that is entirely scientific, as is the information of LEAN, Riverkeepers and the Sierra Club. So really, it's only you, WetlandScientist1, who is in the opposition camp with the corporate mitigation banks and their representative, Scott Nesbit, who want to clear-cut the trees and develop the land into subdivisions. Talk to LSU scientists and get it straight.

  23. Andy Nyman says:

    Len,

    I too always assume that drainage efforts really are development efforts until I learn otherwise, but it seems to me that the current water control structure keeps this area unnaturally flooded and prevents seedling establishment of new baldcypress and bottomland species on swale and ridge respectively. Readers interested in threats to our coastal forest may want to see the report by the Coastal Wetland Forest Conservation and Use Scientific Working Group at http://www.coastalforestswg.lsu.edu/ and especially the descriptions of the Condition Class I, Condition Class II, and Condition Class III. Until I learn otherwise, I believe much of the area around Spanish Lake currently is a Condition Class II but could be restored to a Condition Class I if water levels were lowered and seasonal variability increased. People opposing changes to water control structure already assume these forests are a Condition Class I.

    However, I did not reach this tentative conclusion from a study of the hydrologic data, but instead last year while consulting for a oil and gas company regarding damage to land there (brine spill stuff was my conclusion). I’ve also spoken to Scott Nesbit about this area several times, suspect he is correct, and await the report that you mentioned. I ask that your readers likewise to wait and see the upcoming data before deciding whether to support or oppose plans for the area.

    If we can figure out what water levels were common a hundred years or so ago (which in addition to being lower, probably included a seasonal component that is restricted by the existing water control structure), then I hope that we will restore that level and seasonal pattern as much as practical. Until I learn more, I envision reconnecting Bayou Manchac AND reducing artificial flooding in those wetlands.

    andy

    • Andy,____What is the elevation of the stressed tree area damaged by brine? When were you there? Doesn't like you've had the opportunity to cross check the water surface elevation at the lock with the natural grade of your stressed site.____Perhaps there is something in the web posted NRP report that can assist you. Check out this URL perhaps it can answer these questions:

      http://www.spanishlake.org/documents/Proposed-Eco

      Kelly Haggar

  24. Frank Truesdale says:

    Len,

    Great post! Dick Russell pointed out that Jackson’s fears may have been unwarranted as Bayou Manchac was a flowing distributary of the Mississippi only during high river stages and silted up and dried at its origin at lower river stages, the bed of the bayou being much higher than the low-water stages of the Mississippi. But this says nothing against the need to restore seasonal flow to Manchac, again.
    (Please don’t blame Andrew Jackson, as we need him now more than ever!)

    Your point of bringing the parishes of EBR, Iberville, Livingston, and Ascension together is great. EBR’s plan’s for ridding it of stormwaters, for instance, has been get it downstream, out of the parish, with no coordinated plans with parishes downstream.

    Still talking about the BR Loop with today’s realities of peak oil and climate change is ridiculous.

  25. You Rock, Daddio!
    Thanks,
    Editilla

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