Floodgate opening brings controversy

Deidre Cruse
The floodgate at Alligator Bayou has sparked a controversy between parish officials and an Ascension Parish tour boat operator and some environmental groups, who claim opening the lock structure except during high water damages the Spanish Lake basin.

The floodgate at Alligator Bayou was opened last Sunday morning and remained open until high water conditions in Bayou Manchac decreased, Iberville Chief Administrative Officer Edward A. “Lucky” Songy Jr. said.

The gates were opened based on an agreement between Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. and Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez.

Martinez did not have a problem with opening the floodgates, even though the most vocal opponent is an Ascension Parish tour boat operator, Frank Bonifay, Songy and Iberville Environmental and Permits Manager John Clark said.

Ascension Parish crews, which operate the gate by mutual agreement between the two parishes, opened the floodgate Sunday, they said.

“If Bayou Manchac comes up again after a heavy rain, we will have to lose that gate again,” Clark said.

Martinez reportedly does intend to meet with opponents of using the lock structure for flood control purposes only to see if a compromise can be struck on their operation. Bonifay and environmental groups in Baton Rouge contend that keeping the floodgate open would drain Spanish Lake and damage the ecosystem there.

The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers also is studying whether the lock structure should be used for flood control purposes only or as an ecological management tool. A report is due next year.

Clark has contended that keeping the floodgate closed has allowed foreign vegetation to infest Spanish Lake to the detriment of native fish and wildlife.

Most of the people who want the floodgate kept closed permanently “don’t have all the facts and are just going by hearsay,” Clark said.

Bonifay, who has said lowering the water levels would hurt his tour boat operation, benefits from the operation of another floodgate that is operated on the same basis proposed for the Alligator Bayou structure.

“There is another floodgate in that vicinity that drains Bluff Swamp,” Clark said. “They keep that gate open as much as they can in order to keep Bluff Swamp as dry as possible. It appears to be a double standard between these two waters.”

Bluff Swamp is immediately adjacent to Spanish Lake and drains the Ridge Road area, an area built up with “fancy houses and subdivisions,” Clark said.

“It also happens to be where Frank Bonifay lives,” the parish environmentalist said. “He keeps that area high and dry, but Spanish Lake, he wants to keep that open.”

So far, there are no suggestions that a suit will be filed to force the closure of the floodgate, the parish officials 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 water levels arbitrarily high; they claim that artificially impeding the flow of water through the area is damaging local hardwood and cypress tupelo forests.

Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr., who is attending a hurricane preparedness conference in Texas, has cited an independent study by The Shaw Group for the Lake Ponchartrain Levee District which he said shows that restoring the natural water flow is the most effective means to restore the Spanish Lake Watershed.