Can the LSU lakes be saved?

Can the LSU lakes be saved?

A $21.1 million plan to revive the dying recreational gem of Baton Rouge raises questions about who is responsible for footing the bill.


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In the early 1930s, the federal Works Progress Administration converted a thick cypress-tupelo swamp into an urban lake in Baton Rouge's growing southeast environs. A lake was infinitely more appealing than a swamp, local officials believed, especially in the part of the city that now housed LSU.



The campus had been relocated to its current site from downtown in 1926, and an eye-catching body of water served as the ideal gateway. University Lake joined the existing City Park Lake, which had been dug a decade earlier. Together, they have formed one of the city's most enduring points of recreational activity and civic pride.



Composed of the two main lakes—University and City Park—and four smaller water bodies—Lake Crest, Lake Erie, Campus Lake and College Lake—the 275-acre site attracts scores of joggers, walkers, kayakers, fishers and picnickers. Numerous running events, including the Louisiana Marathon, are held along all or part of the area, which is a well-known migratory bird flyway that also attracts naturalists and photographers.



Visible from Interstate 10, the lakes offer a scenic glimpse of Baton Rouge to thousands of daily motorists. They also are the connective tissue between LSU and City Park, a standout accomplishment in a city with a poor history of planning.



The lakes are lined with some of the Capital City's priciest residences and support diverse, established neighborhoods such as Old South Baton Rouge, College Town, Southdowns and the Garden District. Neighbors take advantage of the lakes on a constant basis, but so does a wide swath of East Baton Rouge Parish.




A BREC public-opinion survey released last month determined that nearly 30% of parish residents routinely visit the lakes. Most use them monthly or weekly, and more than 70% stay from 30 minutes to two hours.



“It's a very significant area to Baton Rouge,” says former BREC Superintendent Bill Palmer, who retired in January. “It's the gateway to LSU and to several neighborhoods. It's a natural draw. Water attracts people.”



But as tranquil as they appear, the lakes are in peril. Authorities say they were not properly dug and have grown shallower over the decades. With depths ranging from 2˝ feet to 5 feet, they can't efficiently filter the continual runoff from surrounding urban conditions, including grass clippings, fertilizers and silt from yards, roads and the City Park golf course.



Unwanted nutrients have built up in the lakes and created conditions for plants and algae to grow in excess. When these plants die and decompose, the lakes' oxygen level falls, sometimes choking out marine life and causing fish kills. Plants now are taking over shorelines where water once lapped. Without dredging, say experts, the lakes will continue to deteriorate.



The three entities with authority over the lakes system—LSU, the city-parish and BREC—agree. So does the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has worked with representatives of these groups since 2004 to craft an ecosystem restoration plan. But the plan's unexpected and unrealistic price tag of more than $21.1 million—which includes nothing to improve paths or recreational elements—now has local authorities stumped about what to do next.




“There's no question they are disappearing,” says Yi Jun Xu, associate professor of hydrology at the LSU AgCenter School of Renewable Resources, who has studied the lakes' water quality since 2008. “They're in poor condition right now, and if we don't do something, they will return to swamp.”



Same old song

Xu's research on the lakes began as a way to show students how to measure water quality with modern equipment. He used a Board of Regents grant to purchase devices that monitor water temperature, oxygen and pH levels in real time.



The lakes were the perfect laboratory. Xu and his graduate students installed floating equipment in the center of University Lake, the largest of the six bodies, which sends data to his office every 15 minutes. For the past four years, the data have shown that University Lake has become increasingly more hypereutrophic, the scientific term that refers to an excess of nutrients in a water body, leading to an unhealthy reduction in oxygen.



Water bodies need more than 5 milligrams per liter of oxygen to be considered healthy. In some parts of the lakes, Xu says, the levels are below 2 milligrams per liter. And in the past year, invasive water hyacinths have begun to emerge, he says, which is an indication of further decline since the plant is drawn to oxygen-depleted waters.



His findings are not surprising. Similar conditions were documented by LSU researchers from the Institute for Environmental Studies in the 1970s. At that point in their history, the lakes had collected runoff from the developing area for more than 40 years. Too shallow for their own good, they had essentially become nutrient sinks.



“I remember how often the fish kills occurred back then,” says Bill Reich, a longtime College Town resident and landscape architect. “It was a real problem.”



An effort initiated in 1977 by the Environmental Protection Agency, the state and the city-parish led to the lakes' only dredging project, which took place between 1983-84 and benefited four of the six waters. Lake Erie, which flanks City Park Lake, and Lake Crest, on the west side of Dalrymple Drive near McKinley High School, were not included.



The dredging project was intended to increase depths, says Ted Jack, BREC's assistant superintendent of planning, operations and resources, but an abundance of cypress stumps left behind by the WPA created a major hurdle.



SURVEY SAYS ...

Click here for a breakdown of responses to a 2011 Baton Rouge Area Foundation CityStats survey question, which asked East Baton Rouge Parish residents if they thought local government should pursue improvements to the LSU lakes with more jogging paths, sitting areas and park spaces. (PDF)

“The dredging definitely helped, but they were really only able to create a channel through the middle because of the stumps,” he says. “They never went into the arms of the lakes, and probably only reached about 25% of the area.”



The excavated materials—spoils—were used to create what eventually became Wampold Park on Stanford Avenue, which expanded recreational capacity, Jack says. But even as the lakes attracted more outdoor enthusiasts, they continued to resist human intervention below the surface, slowly marching back to their past life as a swamp.



“It was a faulty lake from the beginning,” he says. “We never had the depth we needed.”



Pedestrian experience

For decades, one of the prevailing issues regarding the lakes has been to improve the quality of recreational amenities, especially the disconnected and dated pedestrian and bike paths.



BREC has resurfaced some paths in the past few years, but many of them still terminate abruptly or abut busy roadways. There are no paths at all in many places—particularly along East Lakeshore Drive from City Park Lake to Stanford Avenue—and joggers, walkers and bicyclists must share the road with vehicles.



Lakeshore Civic Association President George Bayhi, who lives around City Park Lake, says safety is a concern.



“You have pedestrians and vehicles in close proximity to each other,” he says. “It can be very dangerous.”



As recently as November 2011, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation's CityStats survey determined that 72% of parish residents supported “improving the City Park lakes with more jogging paths, sitting areas and park spaces.” What was most striking about the response, BRAF Executive Vice President John Spain says, was that it was evenly distributed across age, race, income level and part of town.



“There's no question that people from across the parish see the lakes as a priority,” he says.



The first calls for recreational improvements began in earnest after the 1983-84 dredging project. The 1991 City Park/University Lakes Management Plan by landscape architecture firm Reich and Associates proposed better amenities. But paying for such improvements was an ongoing issue, in part because of the lakes' thorny jurisdictional arrangement.



LSU owns University Lake, Campus Lake, College Lake and Lake Crest, and the city-parish owns City Park Lake. Lake Erie's ownership is under debate, but it falls either to homeowners or to the city-parish. BREC has a cooperative agreement to operate the recreational features. And the city-parish is responsible for peripheral drainage and for the sewer lines that run beneath some of the water bodies.



After the 1991 plan, the creation of a single tax district to support and manage the lakes was proposed, Palmer and Jack say, but it was rejected by area homeowners.



WHO OWNS THE LAKES?

LSU owns University Lake, Campus Lake, College Lake and Lake Crest, and the city-parish owns City Park Lake. Lake Erie's ownership is under debate, but it falls to either homeowners or the city-parish. BREC operates the recreational features, which principally are found around University and City Park lakes. And the city-parish is responsible for peripheral drainage and for the sewer lines that run beneath some of the water bodies. Click here for a map. (PDF)

Then in 2000, landscape architect firm Henslee Cox and the nonprofit organization Baton Rouge Green created the Lakes District Master Plan, an ambitious design strategy that called for safer paths, extensive landscaping, park benches, urban sculptures and five waterspouts that would be situated in University and City Park lakes.



Despite its lack of funding, Jack says, the plan was well received by civic leaders, including then-LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert. But as authorities explored the plan, it was clear that a thorough dredging project was needed to precede any aesthetic overhaul. Jack says the water quality was degrading again and would continue to worsen. Moreover, the easiest way to construct or expand paths and beachheads was to use the excavated material.



“If we didn't have dredging,” he says, “we knew we were going to have trouble.”



Dredge baby dredge

After deliberating on the 2000 design plan, officials from BREC, the Department of Public Works and LSU began exploring the possibility of a more thorough dredging plan than the one accomplished in 1983-84.



About 2004, representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers suggested the project would be eligible for its Continuing Authorities program, which enabled smaller, local projects to apply for funding without having to obtain congressional authorization. The program provided a 65%-35% federal-to-local match, limited to $5 million on the federal side.



The groups met for the next several years; the result was an ecosystem restoration plan for the lakes district, completed in 2009, which focused on correcting the natural conditions and ensuring long-term sustainability.



At their deepest points, the lakes would be about 15 feet. The plan did not include improvements to paths, parks or other recreational features. The price tag totaled $7.1 million, meaning that if the project was awarded, local authorities would have to match $2.5 million. Split three ways, Jack says, it seemed doable.



But the more local officials looked at the details, says Bryan Harmon, DPW's deputy director, the less confident they felt about completing the work for the amount of funds budgeted.



“We didn't agree with the costs. It didn't address things like, what are you doing with the sediment?” he says. “The costs were probably more in line with doing a lake in a brand-new area, but there were too many unknowns here.”



Jason Soileau, LSU Facility Services' assistant director of planning, design and construction, agrees.



“The more we peeled back the layers of the onion, the cost started to inflate,” he says. “We challenged the corps on many points.”



One of the challenges was the number of cypress stumps under the surface, says DPW Director William Daniel, who estimates there are thousands. So the corps and local bodies reworked the figures, and the price tag soared to $21.1 million.



The revised plan includes draining and dredging all six lakes, clearing stumps, and “earth moving” or pushing dredging material to the shoreline. It estimates the lakes contain 1,500 stumps with an average diameter of six feet that must be cleared. The stumps would not be hauled away, but would be buried in a deep trench at the bottom of the lake.



To move them “would be too damaging for our infrastructure,” Daniel says.



Dredging material would be moved to shorelines and not hauled away, a sticking point for some neighbors, who feel it should be removed to preserve the size and visibility of the lakes. But other residents see the material as a means to increase land mass and pedestrian paths.



Bayhi, whose organization represents a majority of residences surrounding the lakes, says the neighborhood association has not formally voted on the issue. He personally supports the idea of using the spoils to stabilize banks and to expand footpaths on high-risk sections.



“It is so dangerous there,” he says of traveling as a pedestrian or bicyclist along Stanford Avenue, despite a sidewalk that was widened during the city-parish's sewer project. “Three or four feet of path would make it safer.”



The project's revised—and larger—price tag raises the question of whether it's sensible to dredge in smaller segments. But Nick Sims, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, says the corps' strict cost-to-benefit ratio meant that a proposal to dredge all six lakes makes the project more salable.



“We did an itemized cost-environmental benefit analysis of dredging in all possible combinations: only University Lake; only Campus Lake; University and Campus lakes, et cetera,” he says. “Dredging in all of the lakes gave us the most bang for our buck.”



The plan also includes a trickle-tube system that would allow nutrients captured after a storm event to bypass the lakes system. By doing this, Soileau says, the project would accomplish what the 1983 dredging did not.



“It would finally be sustainable,” he says.



But while local officials and the corps now believe they have the right plan to clean up water quality, its revisions triggered sticker shock. And at $21.1 million, Sims says, the project is no longer eligible for the corps' Continuing Authorities program.



The remaining option is to have the project compete for funds within the corps' broader General Investigations program, which doesn't limit the amount requested and still provides a federal match.



“Where we are now is to try to move the project into the GI program,” Sims says. “The problem with that is that you must have congressional authority to construct the project and to begin a feasibility study.”



Much of the work accomplished for the Continuing Authorities program remains usable, but a new study would require even more information. What's more, he says, “The sponsors will have to work with their congressional delegation to make this happen.”



Local authorities have yet to approach the current delegation. A similar attempt, with then-Congressman Richard Baker, a Baton Rouge Republican, went nowhere. Moreover, the fund is highly competitive. A project to restore Baton Rouge's 275-acre urban lakes system would compete with all nationwide water projects related to navigation, flood damage reduction and ecosystem restoration.



Even if it's ultimately funded, which could take years, local officials would still have to come up with $7.9 million in matching funds. Therefore, the project remains on hold, and none of the local authorities has a solution about what to do next.



Palmer says the role of BREC, which doesn't own the lakes, is to provide recreational components and not to lead the charge to find funding for an ecosystem restoration project.



“It's not BREC driving this train,” he says. “We see the value and the recreational opportunities, but this is not a BREC project.”



Daniel says the city-parish doesn't have the money, suggesting that LSU champion the call to action since it owns a majority of the six lakes.



“The university is facing challenges and difficult economic times right now,” Soileau says. “The lakes are highly important, and this is a good plan that provides sustainability, but we don't have the funding.”



The lack of a single authority overseeing the lake system frustrates LSU's Xu.



“The lakes, in fact, are not protected by anybody,” he says. “Everyone enjoys them, but no one is solely responsible for taking care of them.”



A swampy future?

It's hard to make an argument for the urgency of the dredging project when the lakes still look attractive. Even hydrologists such as Xu can't pinpoint when the lakes will silt in enough to elicit public outcry.



But Soileau says residents who want to see what the future portends should look at Campus Lake, the water body on South Stadium Drive and flanked by LSU's Herget and Miller residence halls.



“We're already seeing vegetation around the whole thing and issues with animal control,” he says. “Even around University Lake, you can see some of the narrower slews starting to silt in.”



Soileau has delivered countless presentations to civic groups on the lakes' conditions and has tried to make Campus Lake a case study. He had the lake placed on the Department of Environmental Quality's Beneficial Environmental Projects list in 2008, which enables a company fined for environmental violations to designate funds for a specific project. So far, no companies have chosen Campus Lake.



Ironically, as the lakes' water quality continues to degrade, their use is on the rise, thanks to enhancements brought about by BREC's City-Brooks Park Master Plan at the north end and the creation of Wampold Park on Stanford Avenue at the south end.



“From a use and recreational standpoint, they're the best they've ever been,” says Jack, who wonders if dredging only part of the lakes might be a reasonable start.



Reich says the lakes are too much of an amenity to write off. He sees them as fundamental to the local identity, much as Town Lake is to Austin, Texas, adding that they haven't been fully capitalized upon from an economic development standpoint.



“They're critical for the city,” he says. “It's the one gathering place where everybody comes. Everyone wants the lakes cared for. It's in our backyard, but it's not just for this part of town. It's an identifying element, and Baton Rouge could really promote it.”



In the absence of a major dredge, Xu says local authorities shouldn't fall on their swords. He's eager to see public education about reducing runoff, grass clippings and litter in the lakes, and he'd like to challenge the erroneous perception that water takes care of itself and doesn't require maintenance.



“People don't think about water as a resource that needs to be protected and managed,” he says. “Around here, we need to change this desperately.”

Editor's note: This story has been changed since its original publication.



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