New water quality effort now underway

Deidre Cruse, Governmental Reporter

The Upper Terrebonne Basin (UTB) Watershed Restoration Project has launched a three-year, $900,000 effort aimed at improving  water quality in Iberville and two neighboring parishes, Iberville Environmental and Permits Manager John C. Clark said Friday.

Water quality is important not only for fishing and recreation, but also for Iberville Water District No. 3, which takes its drinking water from the Intracoastal Waterway and has been severely affected by the recent drought, Clark said.

He said water levels in the Intracoastal have dropped to within two to three feet of the district's intake pipe, and further drops could jeopardize its water supply. Water District No. 3 serves residents in much of the northwestern and southern parts of the parish.

“The parish is dependent on the quality and quantity of surface water,” Clark said. “The quantity is critically low right now.”

The ground has soaked up recent rainfall, amounting to two and a half to three inches, and there has been little run-off into local waterways, he said.

Clark said he is working the Plaquemine and Port Allen to increase the amount of water released through the freshwater project and the lock, respectively, to keep the water level up.

Several years ago, Iberville joined with Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge to study ways to improve conditions in the waterways of the tri-parish area. Their Watershed Restoration Project has secured $600,000 in federal funds for to take water samples to pinpoint pollution problems in the area between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers from Pointee Coupee and West Baton Rouge south to bayous Sorrel and Pigeon.

They also will look at problems of waterborne litter, Clark said. The parishes must provide a $300,000 match for the federal funds, but most of that will be in manpower, the manager said.

“Local cleanup projects, for example, can be considered as a match,” Clark said. “I don't see us having to write a check. This project is going to last for three years.”

Congress has authorized, but not yet funded four other projects, he said.

The ultimate goal is to restore waterways that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has listed as “impaired,” Clark said. That includes areas where low oxygen levels threaten game fish such as bass, bream and white perch, and areas where high secondary and coli form bacteria make them unsafe for water sports.

“Most of our waterways are not meeting that standard, so we're looking at what's causing the problem,” he said.

Many different things, including run-off of chemicals and sediment, cause water pollution.

“Before they build the levees, the Mississippi used to overflow down through these bayous,” Clark said. “Now, there is no flow. We only get storm water run-off. Another part of the project is to assess the feasibility of reintroducing freshwater from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya Basin.” South of here, he said, residents along Bayou Teche pump water over the levee form the Atchafalaya Basin to improve flow.

The local watershed improvement effort has been developed and promoted through “stakeholder” meetings at which local residents can express their concerns.

Those meetings will continue with a series of workshops and possibly an annual water festival “to bring everybody together to celebrate and keep them all informed o n where we are and plan on going,” Clark said.

“All this is a people's project. This is a project people have told us they want. This is being driven from the bottom up, not the top down. Without their support, we can't continue to get things done and continue to get funding for projects like this.”

In addition to water quality, the latest project will address wildlife and fisheries habitat, erosion, sedimentation, flooding, navigation, and the overall environmental health of the water resources.

This watershed project is a direct response to the public and stakeholder desires to improve water quality and fisheries, reduce erosion and sedimentation, and reduce flooding. Stakeholder interest groups, such as the Bayou Grosse Tete Task Force Team, the False River Civic Association, and the local residents in Bayou Pigeon, Bayou Sorrel, and West Baton Rouge Parish, were instrumental in the development of the UTB Watershed Project.

This project phase will conduct water quality sampling to determine “where” and “how” it would be best to reduce non-point source pollution (NPS). NPS is caused by general runoff from the land and leads to water quality problems. Examples of NPS include excess sediments and nutrients. Sediments can choke waterways, reduce natural flow, cause fish spawning problems, and create navigation problems. Excess nutrients can lead to excess phytoplankton blooms, low levels of dissolved oxygen and loss of quality fisheries.

Additional components of this watershed project include removal of waterborne debris, continued stakeholder meetings to gather and disseminate information, web site development, cleanup events and water festivals, educational activities in the schools, water quality sampling, and assessing the feasibility for freshwater reintroduction.