First, a little history.
(I love history. Not loving history is like not loving...stories.)
Prior to the Louisiana Purchase, goods were not shipped into the city of New Orleans on the Mississippi River. They came into Lake Pontchartrain and then through Bayou St. John. The Creole living in New Orleans were not happy that the French sold Louisiana to the Americans, so they decided to only let French ships into the Bayou. So the Americans had to build their own canal for their ships. They called it the New Canal. (19th Century Americans were surprisingly uncreative.)
Slaves were too expensive and there was a famine in Ireland, so Irish immigrant workers were brought in to build the canal. Working conditions in the swamp were horrific.It's estimated that anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 of the Irish workers died from the back-breaking work or from yellow fever, cholera, malaria. Many were buried (unmarked) right there in the levee. There's now a Celtic cross monument in the west end to memorialize the lost workers.
The New Canal opened in 1838 and was used until the 1940s, when shipping methods changed. The New Basin Lighthouse was built at the far end of one of the jetties at the entrance of the canal.
Eventually most of the canal was filled in, leaving only the half-mile stretch at the lakefront by the lighthouse, which continues to be used as a harbor for small boats and yachts. Tom Benson's yacht was there until he passed (about a week before I visited) and then someone came and took it away. The route of the canal became the Pontchartrain Expressway and eventually was incorporated into I-10.
The lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. It was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation purchased it from the US Coast Guard, who had taken ownership of it. Reconstruction was completed in 2013.
Now let's talk a little bit about Lake Pontchartrain.
The Lake is actually an estuary - a partially enclosed coastal body of brackish water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea. The mixture of sea and fresh water provides high levels of nutrients so estuaries are among the most productive natural habitats on earth.
By the 1970s, Lake Pontchartrain was decidedly polluted. In the 80s, signs went up along the south shore warning people not to swim in the water. Development on the Northshore was mostly rural homes with septic systems, and a lot of dairy farms. All of that ran off into the rivers that feed the lake. And I bet my Mississippi friends remember these:
Every single parking lot and driveway of my childhood was made of these. We called them oyster shells but they're actually Rangia clams from Lake Pontchartrain. The city started dredging them from the bottom of the lake when they started building the Lakeview neighborhood. The ground simply wasn't solid enough to erect buildings on it, so they mixed these shells into the soil to make it more stable.
Unfortunately, these clams actually clean the water. At the New Canal Lighthouse, they have a display of clams in a tank. Every morning they pull some water from the lake and pour it into the tank. By the end of the day, the water is clear. I took this picture at 3 in the afternoon. For reference, the tank on the right has the same lake water but no clams.
So, with what's washing in from the north, and decades of removing clams, most of the environmental problems of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin were recognized by the mid-70s. But there was no organized effort to do anything about it. The state owned the lake, but no one seemed to own the problems. Was it the DEQ? Fish and Wildlife? There were actually more than 90 governmental and regulatory agencies charged with managing the Basin. Try organizing that.
In the spring of 1989, a report written by professors at Tulane and the University of New Orleans called for the establishment of an entity whose sole focus would be a healthy Lake and Basin. That report became the rallying point for a citizen-led effort that resulted in the formation of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation that same year. The mission of LPBF is to restore and preserve the Pontchartrain Basin for the benefit of this and future generations.
One of the first thing they did was eliminate the use of the Rangia clam shells.
I visited the LPBF and New Canal Lighthouse today because my company is going to be partnering with them on some of their educational programs. I got the VIP tour all the way to the top of the lighthouse. It was pretty windy up there.
The view was amazing. Down Lakeshore Drive:
The water is pretty brown because the Bonnet Carre spillway is currently open. That lets water from the Mississippi River into the lake in order to prevent flooding. This is the first time since 2016 the spillway has been opened.
And the city skyline
Palm trees and open-air seafood restaurants and yachts in the marina. Not how most people picture New Orleans.