Dredging Alligator Bayou would solve legal problems and make everyone happy

Lyle Johnson
A big bull gator leaps out of the water to snatch some chicken for dinner at Alligator Bayou recently.

I’d like to take this opportunity to weigh in on the Alligator Bayou controversy that’s been in the news of late. There’s been plenty of coverage concerning this issue on TV and in the newspapers but I’d like to get a little editorial and put in my two cents worth.

My history with the Alligator Bayou Swamp Basin goes way back to when I was a teenager working at Roy Marchand & Son in its heyday. (I’m telling my age) We used to drive past the locks on that gravel road, park our vehicle on the side of the road then take to the swamp in search of wood ducks.

It was a very popular pastime back in the day and you’d hear plenty of gunshots as the ducks left their roost in search of acorns amongst the flooded oak trees. The wood ducks won the battle most of the time as pass shooting in the trees required quick reflexes and a keen eye along with shooting skills that I didn’t possess.

The boat launch was available and I used it a few times to try my luck hunting and fishing around Spanish Lake. It was a beautiful place that provided a young man an opportunity to do something constructive in the outdoors that kept him out of trouble.

Oh well, let’s fast forward way more years than I’d like to count. I remember hearing a story of someone buying up a lot of land in the basin. “Privatizing” it is the way I remember thinking in my mind at the time. A lot of things were said about it and I don’t remember any of it being very positive.

Let’s back track a couple of weeks ago when on assignment for Ascension Gumbo Magazine (A great magazine if I may say so) I got to spend a day with Frank Bonifay, Jim Ragland and the very professional staff of Alligator Bayou Tours. I only live about three miles away and to my regret; I’d never visited the place that held very good memories from my youth.

I was treated to one of the most memorable and professional tours anywhere but the best part for me was to get to know first hand, a little about Frank Bonifay and Jim Ragland, owners of Alligator Bayou Tours. It was nothing like the stories passed around fifteen or so years ago and sort made me feel a little ashamed that I’d never found out about it myself.

These two guys have spent a considerable amount of time and money to accomplish what has been done here. Their efforts will have preserved around 1,500 acres of old growth forest with 1,200 year old cypress trees. They provide educational tours for an average of 230 different schools from all over the country each year.

The alligator pen houses 60 gators for viewing and the young born there are released in the basin to keep the numbers up. Over 700 have been released to date. The bobcat habitat houses three cats that provide for viewing and education. The list goes on but there’s a two sided conflict going on right now that threatens the existence of the boat tours, the quantity and the quality of water in Alligator Bayou.

A decision was made recently to leave the locks open full time unless flooding becomes an issue. This has drained Alligator Bayou to a disturbingly low level that not only effects the educational boat tours but could have devastating consequences for fish and wildlife. This seems to have put two sides at a conflict, but both pretty much want the same outcome and there’s a very simple solution that would make everyone happy.

Keeping the locks open would pretty much put the basin back “the way it used to be,” which would be a really good ending. The trees in the swamp would be flooded for short periods naturally from rains. The excess water would drain through the lock and keep high water levels from becoming a flood issue for people that occupy the basin.

There’s a big problem though with the way things have become. As water was held in the basin by the closing of the locks, silt began to fill in Alligator Bayou. We have the same problem in New River in Gonzales. Three to four feet of silt has basically filled New River because of the weir built in the 60’s right behind Wal-Mart.

An Army Corps of Engineers study done under a previous administration confirmed to restore New River naturally, the weir needs to be removed and all the silt dredged. Alligator Bayou needs dredging also. Nobody on either side wants the basin to hold water year round but because of the silt build up the bayou has very little water left in it with the locks open.

The other problem is one six foot pipe does not provide enough drainage to empty excess waters from the basin when it floods. Bonifay has proposed installing four pipes to get the water out much faster thus alleviating flood problems and will donate the land to accomplish this.

Simple solution – dredge Alligator Bayou to keep adequate water levels that were once there and install additional drainage pipes to help keep the wooded areas dry when needed. This would settle all the issues on both sides.

Some say all this is driven by the business side of Alligator Bayou Tours but there’s just as much business interest on the other side as well. Contact our parish leaders about implementing this simple solution; it starts on the local level. Remember to keep the slack out and set the hook hard.

So until next time be safe in the outdoors, have fun and may God truly bless you.

View of the cypress flats swamp in the Spanish Lake basin.