Parish presidents open Alligator Bayou locks

Deidre Cruse
Both Ascension and Iberville Parish’s presidents decided to open the locks on Alligator Bayou.

(Editor’s note: The Iberville Parish floodgate at Alligator Bayou was opened at 6:30 a.m. Sunday, according to Ascension Parish officials. The opening of the gate is sending water from Alligator Bayou into Bayou Manchac.)

Deidre Cruse

Contributing Writer

Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez and Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. made a joint decision Wednesday to open the locks on Alligator Bayou in order to control the water level of Spanish Lake.

A meeting of the two parish presidents, legal advisers and drainage officials came to the decision to open the locks as soon as Bayou Manchac water level dropped enough to allow the action to take place.

A potential lawsuit could be in the making with a tour boat business owner predicting the move would ruin his operations.

Ourso said he wants the structure to remain open except when it is needed to control flooding in the area.

“I should be able to protect the people of Iberville, and not subsidize some boat tour,” Ourso said.

Both Ourso and Martinez said the opening of the locks would protect the property and lives of residents in the surrounding area of Spanish Lake and Alligator Bayou. Free flowing water from the locks would mean water in the swamp in the winter months and drying conditions in the summers.

In addition to the tour business owner, a couple of environmental action groups in the state have voiced negative reactions to the possible changes in the swamp area during the various seasons, saying just the opposite of natural resource professionals contacted by the two parish governments.

One group says it will bring an unbalance to the ecosystem of the area, while another says it will be the right thing for flood control and will restore the land to its natural state as a forested area.

Although Iberville owns the control structure, which is near the intersection of the Iberville/East Baton Rouge/Ascension parish lines, Ascension has operated it over the years.

“We’ve always had a good working relationship with Ascension on that particular issue,” Ourso said.

Landowners who hold more than 9,000 acres of property around Spanish Lake have threatened to sue Iberville Parish for damage to their property caused by keeping the floodgate closed, Ourso said. They claim that artificially impeding the flow of water through the area is damaging local hardwood and cypress tupelo forests.

The Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) and Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper Paul Orr have protested that keeping the floodgate would destroy the ecosystem in the Spanish Lake Basin.

“If the basin were drained to the level of Bayou Manchac, I am afraid that much of the time Spanish Lake would be mostly dry,” Orr said in an e-mail update on Alligator Bayou.

Iberville Environmental and Permits Manager John Clark said the environmentalists have their facts wrong.

“Most of what you hear is emotion,” he said.

“This is the first step toward restoring the Spanish Lake Watershed,” Clark said.

Currently Spanish Lake is infected with invasive plant species – hydrilla, black willow and giant cut grass – that are killing native cypress trees and native fish and wildlife, he said.

 “In this case the lake has been taken over by foreign vegetation that does not benefit local wildlife and fisheries,” Clark said. “It also causes navigation hazards and decreases the water quality.”

Water quality assessment reports on Spanish Lake from 1996 to 2006 indicate the lake does not support its designated uses of fishing and swimming, he said.

“Opening the floodgates will not drain the entire lake, the parish environmentalist said, adding that 40 years of silt and runoff is piled up in front of the structure.

An independent study performed by The Shaw Group for the Lake Pontchartrain Levee District has shown that restoration of the natural water flow is the most effective means to restore the Spanish Lake Watershed, Ourso noted in a written statement.

He said the action by Iberville Parish is in keeping with the recommendation of the Pontchartrain Levee District in February of 2009 that the flood gate at Alligator Bayou be left open during non-flood conditions. The floodgate will be closed when high water levels from Bayou Manchac threaten to flood the Spanish Lake Watershed area, and re-opened when floodwaters recede. A similar floodgate at nearby Frog Bayou presently follows this recommendation.