A red-letter day is fast upon us — or call it a redfish day: the first time in decades that waters from Lake Pontchartrain will flow unimpeded into Bayou St. John, bringing wildlife with them.
By mid-May, scientists and engineers expect to announce a schedule for regularly throwing open the gate at the mouth of the bayou, assuming elaborate monitoring now under way supports that decision, said David Boyd, a civil engineer with Burk-Kleinpeter, the engineering and design firm hired to manage the project.
Opening the gate and restoring a more natural flow of water is part of a multi-faceted effort to revitalize a beloved but stagnant body of water, one that runs well into Mid-City and connects to canals that terminate in Armstrong Park, across the street from the French Quarter.
It’s part of a post-Katrina revolution in the city’s approach to water management, one predicated on the idea that New Orleans needs to work with water flows, not just fight and block them.
Water management issues aside, a refreshed Bayou St. John will enhance its value for recreation and fishing — yes, redfish and speckled trout are expected to flourish there, as will more crabs, once the motorized gate swings open regularly.
Boyd said Burk-Kleinpeter is working with the Flood Protection Authority, the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation to determine the best and safest times to open the gate.
The gate is being opened now roughly once a month just to make sure it works. The schedule for more frequent openings will be based on water conditions and times when there is a high probability of marine life near the mouth of the bayou.
A University of New Orleans team has been tracking the wildlife in the bayou. Other factors in determining the timing of these openings include tides, lunar tables and water elevations.
To determine optimal times for opening the gate, the Flood Protection Authority will use real-time data provided by Wildlife and Fisheries, which has installed state-of-the-art technology to help gather information about water quality, fish numbers and myriad additional data.
Safety for residents along the bayou will remain the paramount factor in any decision on gate openings. The gate will be closed whenever a storm or hurricane is in prospect or during high-water events that require opening the Bonnet Carre Spillway and feeding Mississippi River overflow into Lake Pontchartrain.
A major step towards the makeover was removal a year ago of the dam at Robert E. Lee Boulevard, an obstruction built in 1962 that has been described as a “99 percent coronary blockage” by Mark Schexnayder, deputy assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
To extend Schexnayder’s metaphor, a schedule for reopening the gates will be a bit like a heart-valve replacement. With a healthier blood flow restored, the bayou is expected to come alive in ways it hasn’t been for half a century.