“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people who are working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.

The Lake Pontchartrain Basin is a vast, yet delicate, ecosystem nestled at the end of the Mississippi River Delta. Its waters were formed over 5,000 years ago as the great glaciers of the North American continent slowly melted, depositing large volumes of water and sediment into the Mississippi River. Over the next 2,000 years or so, the river’s delta grew eastward, creating the land area that would become the city of New Orleans and its environs, while simultaneously creating Lake Pontchartrain.

Despite its name, Lake Pontchartrain is not a lake. It is actually a large estuary, one of the largest in the country. The Lake is connected to the Gulf of Mexico through two passes, the Rigolets, and Chef Menteur Pass, where the fresh water of Lake Pontchartrain meets the salt water of the Gulf. The Lake’s estuarine features provide habitat for countless freshwater and saltwater species. But unfortunately, the same features that make it an attractive home for wildlife also make it a prime target for commerce and industry.

There have been a number of problems to challenge the Pontchartrain Basin, many of which stem from the heavy urban and industrial development of the region. These issues came to the forefront of the Basin community’s attention in the early 90’s when a report entitled “To Restore Lake Pontchartrain” was published. The report, authored by professors at Tulane University and the University of New Orleans, pointed out that the myriad association of government agencies responsible for managing the health of the Basin was ineffective and resulted in very limited restoration efforts. Therefore, they argued for the creation of one organization to coordinate restoration projects and advocate on behalf of the Pontchartrain Basin and its community.

Out of this sprang the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, or LPBF, a non-profit organization devoted to restoring the natural ecology of the Lake and the Basin, as well as safeguarding the region from the Gulf’s severe weather. Their first environmental campaign, called Save Our Lake, helped to raise public awareness about the threats to the Lake and its watershed, kick-starting its activities in the Gulf coastal zone. By the mid 90’s, the group had developed a joint plan with E.P.A. and a bevy of other state and local organizations to identify all sources of pollution within the Basin, including oil & gas drilling, storm and sewer runoff, litter, and agricultural waste carried downstream by the region’s rivers.

That plan would constitute the Foundation’s Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP), providing goals, strategies, and methods for gradually restoring and improving the Lake’s most sensitive habitats. In the years that followed as a result of LPBF actions the water quality of the lake improved vastly.  In 2006 E.P.A removed Lake Pontchartrain from the list of impaired water bodies, returning this valuable resource to health.  As a next step, a Comprehensive Habitat Management Plan (CHMP) created in 2006 would name projects to pursue to make the Pontchartrain Basin sustainable for the next hundred years.  This led to the creation of the Pontchartrain Coastal Lines of Defense (PCLOD) Program, calling for the use of both natural and manmade flood barriers for coastal sustainability.

The PCLOD program seeks to restore the coast line of the Pontchartrain Basin, a goal that falls neatly in line with several of the Foundation’s restoration projects.  Employing the group’s strategy of Multiple Lines of Defense, their goal is to see marshlands restored along the coastline, as well as improving natural land bridges and barrier islands throughout the Delta. Restoring marshes along the coast helps to absorb floodwater, while healthy natural ridges help break up waves and reduces storm surges.

LPBF’s work towards a comprehensive coastal defense strategy has been long in the making, and made more significant in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Nine years after the city of New Orleans flooded, LPBF, alongside the Army Corps. of Engineers and other non-government organizations, have made significant progress in working toward shoring up the region’s flood defenses.  Protecting land bridges that form a natural barrier to Lake Borgne on the city’s eastern periphery has begun, with more projects either planned or under development. Marshes have also been restored along the city’s northern shores, with other areas planned for restoration as part of the coastal defense strategy.

LPBF’s conservation projects, in tandem with their efforts to protect the coast, have led to significant improvements in the health of the Pontchartrain Basin. Education and outreach programs for both adults and students have helped reduce the impact of urban runoff and improved water quality throughout the lake. The Foundation has also made significant headway in improving wastewater treatment systems, the runoff from which has been an additional problem for the Lake.
Perhaps most significantly, oil & gas drilling within the Pontchartrain Basin has been curtailed since the mid-90’s, thanks to a moratorium on new drilling sites. The moratorium also carries with it the requirement that all decommissioned drilling platforms be removed promptly, reducing the long-term impact of closed wells.

Still, there a number of issues left for the LPBF to tackle, such as the continued loss of marsh and cypress swamps due to saltwater intrusion. Agricultural runoff from the north and continued urban development are also a continuing challenge for the Basin’s watershed. Through public outreach, and working directly with farmers and city planners, LPBF hopes to reduce or even eliminate the impact of agriculture and urban sprawl on the Basin.

The Lake Pontchartrain Basin has made a remarkable recovery over the last two decades, in large part because of the work of LPBF. Without LPBF’s consistent efforts to restore local habitats, coordinate projects for the protection of the Basin, and educate the public about environmental responsibility, the Basin would not have been returned to good health. LPBF’s role in protecting the Lake Pontchartrain Basin will only increase in importance as the region continues to grow and experience more extreme weather. If past successes are any indication, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation will be more than ready to face these new challenges.