Wildlife gets new habitat on Lake Pontchartrain south shore

The plants sticking up through the muddy ground at Bayou St. John on Tuesday afternoon didn’t look like much, but in one, maybe two growing seasons, they should transform this area into a mini wetland.

Although just a little under a half-acre in size, the wetlands creation project on the Lake Pontchartrain side of the flood control structure could become an oasis of habitat for fish, crabs and birds in an otherwise bleak expanse of concrete floodwalls and rock protection along the south shore.

On Tuesday, about 50 volunteers from Harrah’s, Entergy and other companies showed up for what should be the final major step in creating a wetland where the bayou meets Lake Pontchartrain through the planting of wetland grasses.

There will be some fine tuning done in the future, such as lowering some areas of the marsh or additional plantings, but for now the created marsh is a lot more inviting than what was there before, said John Lopez, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, which organized the marsh creation project.

“You just had a bare concrete embankment,” he said. “Which is just poor habitat.”

Now that concrete embankment is fronted by a mudflat that will grow over in time with wetlands and will help take advantage of plans to open the floodgate more often to allow better interchange between the lake and the bayou, Lopez said.

“Even with just these mudflats, there were egrets coming in and feeding, so obviously there’s some bait fish coming in,” he said.

The wetland base itself is the result of a partnership with the Orleans Levee Board by which dredged material from the bayou was pumped into containment areas created by the foundation, its partners and a host of volunteers. Working in the hot summer sun last year, volunteers spent many weekends piling up 7,400 Deltalok bags to form the outline of where the dredged material would be pumped.

These bags are like sandbags that use local dirt and will stay together for 10 or even 20 years while allowing plants to grow through them to help stabilize the area more.

“We couldn’t have done it without as much community support as we’ve had,” said Andy Baker, wetland biologist with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. More than 1,000 volunteer hours went into constructing the wetlands, he said.

In addition to habitat improvements, the wetland project could help prevent erosion along the levee banks leading up to the flood control gate, and it will be a convenient place for people to get a taste of the larger coastal restoration effort going on in Louisiana, primarily in hard-to-access areas.

“This is an educational opportunity, but it doesn’t really show the scale of what we need to do,” Lopez said, referring to the much larger issue of coastal restoration and protection the state is trying to address.