Group looks to stop LSU and City Park lakes from reverting to swampland

Efforts to save the deteriorating LSU and City Park lakes got a boost this week with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s decision to launch a master plan to keep the lakes from reverting to swampland.

The condition of the lakes at the heart of Baton Rouge — a key focal point for motorists traveling Interstate 10 through the city and a popular recreation spot for many residents — has been a long-standing problem, with several studies highlighting the need to dredge the lakes to preserve them.

“We think the lakes represent one of the crown jewels of Baton Rouge,” BRAF Executive Vice President John Spain said. “When we tell people the lakes are dying, they all agree that this is important. They want to see a solution.”

Spain said BRAF offered to take on the planning project after consulting with the city-parish, LSU and other interested parties, because “it became obvious to us that we had the data, but we had no clear direction as to who would take the next step.”

The six lakes owned by the city-parish and LSU — City Park, University, Campus, College, Crest and Erie — were created from swampland as a public works project in the 1930s.

Since that time, the lakes have grown shallower, and water quality has been a growing concern, due partly to residential and commercial development that has increased pollution in the area.

The two main lakes in the system — City Park Lake and University Lake — average about 2 feet deep, according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study, and fish kills from depleted oxygen in the water have become increasingly common.

The corps study, released in 2008, recommended dredging the lakes to an average depth of 5 feet to remove the sediment that is slowly reverting them to swamps.

According to BRAF, its master plan will build upon the corps report and also examine recreation and infrastructure needs at the lakes.

The plan is being funded through private donations.

BRAF has raised about $500,000 for the process, so far, but is seeking additional funding, Spain said.

An engineering study will begin this month, followed by the kickoff of the master planning process, which is expected to start this summer and conclude early next year.

Officials will still have to come up with the estimated $20 million to $30 million, or more, needed to complete the project — a hurdle that has long hindered efforts to revive the lakes.

Part of BRAF’s plan will look at funding options, Spain said, including the potential for public-private funding partnerships or doing the project in phases as funding becomes available.

The Corps of Engineers does not have a formal role in the process, but spokesman Ricky Boyett said the agency is “definitely willing to help in any way that we can.”

“In the future, we may have a role as the regulatory authority since the plan could potentially include placing fill in a wetland area. However, it is far too early in the process to know if permits would be required,” Boyett said.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission, which oversees the recreational areas around the lakes, has held several recent public input sessions to outline residents’ priorities for parks offerings.

BREC spokeswoman Cheryl Michelet said the City Park and LSU lakes area has been a frequent point of interest in those discussions and BREC supports BRAF’s efforts.

“It is an important area, and it seems like it is becoming a real priority of a lot of people in the parish to try to figure this out,” she said.

Spain said public input also will be part of BRAF’s planning process and will help guide the direction of recreational options at the lakes, including the construction of new bike and walking paths or the addition of water-based amenities, such as kayak rentals.

“The goal of this entire process is to engage the community,” he said. “We really do want everybody to be involved.”

The engineering study is being used to determine how much material has to be dredged and how it can be used to build paths and other offerings. A team led by landscape architects will then be hired to guide the process of developing the amenities plan, based on public input.

“The people of our parish have enjoyed the lakes since they were dug out from a swamp in the 1930s,” BRAF President and CEO John G. Davies said. “A master plan for restoring and enhancing them can lead to another destination that makes living in our parish a little better.”