Saltwater intrusion behind grass loss in Cataouatche, anglers say

December 13, 2013 at 9:21 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Grass in Lake Cataouatche has disappeared, and fishing in the area has dropped off.
Grass in Lake Cataouatche has disappeared, and fishing in the area has dropped off.
Ryan Lambert has fished in St. Charles Parish his entire life and he does not like what he sees happening in the Lake Cataouatche area.

Lambert, 55, who runs a large charter fishing operation in Buras, has been fishing Lake Cataouatche since he was a teenager. He said in that time the composition of the lake has changed, but in recent years the changes have been more dramatic.

The ecology of the body of water that was the site of the Bassmaster Classic in 2011 has quickly changed from being covered in hydrilla grass and water spouts to having no coverage at all.

Scientists with Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) have attributed the change in the lake to excessive sedimentation that coincided with the addition of several other smaller canals dug along the sides of Lake Cataouatche that allow water to flow in from the Mississippi River.

LDWF maintains that the increased sedimentation has blocked out the sunlight and inhibited the growth of vegetation on the lake.

However, a group of St. Charles Parish fisherman led by Lambert have banded together to show their support for another theory behind the grass’ disappearance – saltwater intrusion.

Led by Lambert, the group attended a Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) meeting to ask them to completely open up the Davis Pond Diversion, which diverts freshwater into the lake, instead of running it at around 25 percent of its potential.

“Saltwater intrusion is such a slow indiscriminate is like a cancer. It sneaks in, but once it gets its foothold then it is really rapid,” Lambert said.

According to Lambert, saltwater intrusion is the reason the grass loss is so pronounced now. This is not the first time he has seen it happen.

Sitting in front of a laptop computer, Lambert points at aerial maps showing the areas surrounding his charter fishing camp at Buras near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Side by side images show the area in 1973 when it was partially covered by vegetation and then the present day image where the marshland is completely replaced by open water.

“This is Buras in 1973 and this is Buras today. This is due to saltwater intrusion and subsidence,” he said. “This is the same amount of land behind St. Charles Parish on Lake Cataouatche.”  

Lambert said the complete loss of vegetation and marshland have taken a toll on the wildlife in the Buras area and decreased opportunities for fishermen and hunters. He fears the same thing will happen in Lake Cataouatche unless steps are taken to divert more freshwater to the area.

“In Buras, the fishing has collapsed on the west side of the river. I used to fish there 100 percent of the time, now I fish there 5 percent of the time,” he said.

He wants to stop the problem on Lake Cataouatche before it progresses any further.

“It’s happening already. That is how it does, it comes in and starts killing. Let’s say we have a hurricane and it kills everything, it isn’t coming back unless we have freshwater,” he said.

The problem, Lambert says, is that the flow of freshwater out of the Davis Pond Diversion into Lake Cataouatche is being limited to 2,600 cubic feet per second to provide a saltwater to freshwater balance needed by oyster fisherman who hold leases further south in Barataria Bay.

“If the water gets too salty, a parasite will come in and drill their oysters and kill them. If it is too fresh, that’ll kill them, so you’ve got to maintain it perfect,” he said.

Lambert said maintaining the water at a level that is good for oyster fishermen has an adverse effect on sportsmen and other commercial fishermen.

“Right now there are probably about nine or 10 oyster fishermen out here in Barataria Bay. We are monitoring everything for them at the detriment to not only St. Charles Parish, but full-time catfishermen in Des Allemands, bass fishermen, everything,” he said.

In addition to the changes in opportunities for fishermen and hunters in the area, another problem with saltwater intrusion is that it leads to land loss and makes nearby areas more susceptible to floods.

That means if saltwater intrusion is impacting Lake Cataouatche and marshland is lost, the West Bank of St. Charles Parish will be more vulnerable to flooding from hurricanes.

“What is it going to do? Let’s say it takes that marsh out. It’s pretty simple, we’ve got a 4-foot-levee back there protecting us. For every mile of marsh, you knock down a foot of tidal surge. We’ve got four miles left and it is eating at it every day,” Lambert said.

In order to restore Lake Cataouatche, Lambert said there is only one thing that can be done – the Davis Pond Diversion must be opened to its full capacity.

Although this may have an adverse impact on oyster fishermen, Lambert said you have to weigh that with the benefits to other parts of the area.

“Right now it is CPRA against the oystermen, that is plain and simple. The worst thing is I have family that are oyster fishermen and I have best friends who are oyster fishermen, that doesn’t make it wrong or right,” he said.

The CPRA is in charge of operations at the Davis Pond Diversion and Executive Director Jerome Zeringue said he feels the diversion could be run more efficiently.

“We are looking at and assessing the data. I understand and totally appreciate Captain Lambert’s frustration in terms of where it could be operating. I agree it could be operated more effectively for the habitat, but to pin it down to just salinity or one of the other is probably a series or a combination of factors for which operating the system more efficiently or effectively could provide added benefit,” he said. 

View other articles written Kyle Barnett

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