Fish kills in Ascension subdivision ponds pitting neighbor against neighbor

It may be the summer season for fish kills in south Louisiana, but recent kills in two ponds at Oak Alley Estates subdivision in Ascension Parish could not have come at a worse time.

The dead, stinking fish floating along the banks of ponds in the upscale subdivision earlier this week surfaced amid a nearly two-year legal fight that, according to the homeowners association president, has “torn our neighborhood apart.”

In August 2011, Alvin Perry Jr., 60, his wife and four other families in Oak Alley Estates sued their homeowners association in the state district court in Ascension over maintenance of the two ponds, the management of the association and access to its records.

Perry and the other plaintiffs claim their association has not maintained the common area lakes, including removal of aquatic weeds, and needs to install aerators in the two problem lakes to keep the water oxygenated.

Perry, who has a sign in his yard reading “Oak Alley Estates HOA, Save Our Lake, More Fountains, Less Chemicals,” said he had been trying to have the association install aerators since 2008.

“We’ve been dealing with it since forever,” said Perry, who moved to the neighborhood off La. 74 from St. Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina.

Perry, a lawyer who is co-counsel in the suit, said a smaller fish kill happened on Saturday in the two lakes. Far more dead fish started emerging early Tuesday until thousands could be seen and smelled Tuesday afternoon.

Perry claimed fish kills have happened before, but “not of this magnitude.”

Matthew Pryor, a Gonzales lawyer and new president of the Oak Alley Estates Homeowners’ Association, declined comment Thursday on the advice of the association’s attorney. But he provided a letter he sent to residents Wednesday about the lawsuit, media interest in the fish kills, and association attempts to improve the condition of the ponds.

Pryor wrote that the association’s hired pond manager believes the fish kill stems from a die-off of a phytoplankton bloom that lowered the ponds’ oxygen levels.

In the letter, Pryor says the association was working to install aerators known as diffusers but he also took issue with contentions in Perry’s “garish” sign.

“The message which seems to come from that (sign) is that aeration would have prevented the fish kill. This is pure speculation,” wrote Pryor, who was seated in April after the former board’s election was invalidated in March by the judge overseeing the lawsuit.

On July 3, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality warned about the possibility of warmer temperatures causing algal blooms in the state’s waterways.

The blooms die, robbing water of oxygen and suffocating fish.

DEQ officials investigated the fish kills Thursday.

“We took a reading, and it was low dissolved oxygen,” said Rodney Mallett, DEQ spokesman.

He said low oxygen levels happen naturally in the summer in shallow waters, but he noted the parts of ponds with fish kills lacked aerators.

Oak Alley Estates’ five ponds are designed to collect storm water, a report from a court-appointed expert says.

Detention ponds collect rain runoff, allow sediments to drop out and release cleaner water into drainage. Over time, though, the sediment makes the ponds shallower, fostering aquatic growth.

“Although the lakes are usually aesthetic and the residential lots that border the lakes are sold at a premium, over time they can pose inherent problems for the residents that live on the lakes,” the court expert, LSU fisheries professor Robert P. Romaire, wrote to Judge Thomas J. Kliebert Jr. in the Nov. 29 report.

Four lakes in the subdivision have aerators. The fish kills occurred in the smallest lake, the fifth one, which lacks an aerator, and in a large lake that has an aerator at its center but has a narrow, shallow “neck” that Romaire says needs those special submerged diffusers.

Pryor wrote he was discouraged by recent events in court but the board would accept a good faith resolution.

“That being said, if one person is hellbent on destroying our neighborhood, this board will not sit back and allow it to happen,” he wrote.

Perry said Kliebert has asked both sides to suggest people to lead a mediation, adding the plaintiffs want to settle the dispute but stand by their claims.