Cost leads corps to cancel False River drawdown plan

NEW ROADS - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided against drawing down False River as a possible remedy to the oxbow lake’s declining water quality, Pointe Coupee Parish officials said Friday.

In a letter sent to parish government, the corps said preliminary results of a decade-long study show that temporarily lowering False River’s water levels by as much as 6 feet would help improve the lake’s water quality.

But the estimated $2.6 million it would also take to study the drawdown’s effects on homes and structures along the shoreline would exceed the corps’ $5 million cap on the project, the letter states.

Pointe Coupee Parish Administrator Jim Bello called the corps’ decision Friday, “disappointing.”

The drawdown has been a divisive issue in the parish since March 2010, when the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries first pitched the idea in a crowded New Roads auditorium.

State biologists endorsed a drawdown of the 22-mile-long oxbow lake - formed about 1722 when the Mississippi River changed course - as an inexpensive way to mimic the natural way bodies of water regulate themselves.

The idea was that lowering the lake’s water levels by as much as 6 feet for an extended period would allow sunlight to reach the lakebed.

Exposure to sunlight would allow muck buildups to decompose, thereby improving water quality and promoting the vegetation growth that fish need to spawn, biologists said.

The problem started in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a series of drainage canals was built, causing a dramatic increase in sediment flowing into the lake.

The increased sedimentation rate has choked out vegetation and led to a massive accumulation of organic matter in a freshwater lake once known for its large population of trophy bass.

The drawdown plan was popular among fisherman and recreational lake users, who have seen the lake’s water quality decline and desirable fish populations dwindle.

But the plan also drew opposition from a coalition of landowners - members of the False River Civic Association - who worried the drawdown could loosen soils underneath properties, leaving home foundations to break and compromising the structural integrity of piers and bulkheads along the shoreline.

However, Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Rachel Walley, has said drawdowns have been common and successful in Louisiana for 30 years, with no claims of such damage reported as a result.

False River’s state-conducted drawdown was supposed to have started after Labor Day last year, but Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham postponed it, pending completion of the corps’ ongoing study.

Barham has repeatedly characterized a drawdown as “a temporary fix,” but said the state would go along with it if the corps endorsed that course of action.

“You have 23,000 tons of sediment going into False River every year. A drawdown doesn’t fix that,” Barham said Thursday. “We’re not going to address a symptom, we’re going to be a part of treating the illness.”

Barham said he plans to meet with the corps in the next few weeks to determine what other options may be considered in reversing the lake’s deteriorating health.

Nick Sims, a corps project manager, said Friday the agency is still considering other fixes for the troubled lake, including dredging.

Sims said the corps should have some idea within the next two weeks if dredging either the shallow or deeper areas of the lake would produce the desired results at a reasonable cost.

But Sims also said a similar corps study to determine how to improve water quality in the University Lakes in Baton Rouge was put on hold when engineers determined that dredging the lakes would be too costly to proceed.

With the False River drawdown taken off the table by both the corps and Wildlife and Fisheries, Bello, the parish administrator, said Friday that the idea of dredging False River would likely meet the same fate as the proposal to dredge University Lakes.

“False River is Pointe Coupee’s golden goose,” Bello said. “People like to come here just for False River for recreation and fishing. It’s increased property values and built up our tax base. A good and healthy False River means a good and healthy Pointe Coupee.”

State Rep. Major Thibaut, D-New Roads, also reacted to the corps findings on Friday, calling the presumed end of the drawdown plan “frustrating.”

Thibaut further said he is skeptical there would be sufficient federal or state dollars available for a comprehensive dredging project as an alternative to a drawdown.

A stopgap measure to keep additional sediment from flowing into the lake is likely the best that can be done with the available money, Thibaut said.

“I’m open to working toward that,” Thibaut said, “and then we can look further down the road to deal with what’s already in there.”