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The Lakes of Pontchartrain

The Lakes of Pontchartrain: Their History and Environments

Robert W. Hastings
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Lakes of Pontchartrain
    Book Description:

    A vital and volatile part of the New Orleans landscape and lifestyle, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin actually contains three major bodies of water--Lakes Borgne, Pontchartrain, and Maurepas. These make up the Pontchartrain estuary. Robert W. Hastings provides a thorough examination of the historical and environmental research on the basin, with emphasis on its environmental degradation and the efforts to restore and protect this estuarine system. He also explores the current biological condition of the lakes.

    Hastings begins with the geological formation of the lakes and the relationship between Native Americans and the water they referred to as Okwa'ta, the "wide water." From the historical period, he describes the forays of French explorer Pierre Le Moyne D'Iberville in 1699 and traces the environmental history of the basin through the development of the New Orleans metropolitan area. Using the lakes for transportation and then recreation, the surrounding population burgeoned, and this growth resulted in severe water pollution and other environmental problems. In the 1980s the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation led a concerted drive to restore the lakes, an ongoing effort that has proved significant.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-470-6
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  7. The Lake’s Own Folk Song
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  8. The Lake’s Own Poem
    (pp. xix-xx)

    • Introduction
      (pp. 3-5)

      In the southeastern corner of Louisiana and just east of the Mississippi River delta is a chain of “lakes” forming the Pontchartrain estuary, or the Lakes of Pontchartrain (Figure 1.1). The most significant of these is Lake Pontchartrain, a magnificent body of water closely tied to New Orleans and the Mississippi River delta by its environments, history, culture, and economics. With Lake Borgne (and Lake St. Catherine) on the southeast and Lake Maurepas on the west, these Lakes of Pontchartrain are located at longitude 89°30’ to 90°45’W and latitude 29°50’ to 30°30’ N (Figure 1.2). Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas were...

    • 1. Formation and Geology of the Pontchartrain Basin
      (pp. 6-10)

      The geomorphic history of the Pontchartrain basin begins some 5000 years ago (Saucier 1963, 1994), with its separation from the Gulf of Mexico by delta formation of the Mississippi River. Most of the following discussion of geology is taken primarily from Saucier (1963) and Darnell (1962), who provided a good overview of the lake’s origin and history. Saucier described the basin as a former embayment of the Gulf of Mexico modified by sedimentation from the shifting Mississippi River and its distributaries. From the time of its formation until the present, the Lake Pontchartrain system has been affected by the land-building...

    • 2. Pre-European History
      (pp. 11-20)

      When Lake Pontchartrain was visited by French explorers in 1699, the area had been inhabited by Native Americans for several thousand years. There have been 143 Indian sites recognized in the Pontchartrain basin (Saucier 1963). We have very little information regarding these earliest residents prior to 1700. Their impact on the lakes would have been minimal, except for the creation of large shell mounds, or middens, composed mostly of the discarded shells of rangia clams (Rangia cuneata) that were a major food item. However, Kidder (1998) suggested that there was significant selective burning of some areas to clear forest undergrowth,...

    • 3. Initial European Exploration
      (pp. 21-36)

      In spite of the centuries of occupation of the area by Native Americans, who were quite familiar with Okwa’ta, Lake Pontchartrain is said to have been “discovered” (and named) by the French Canadian Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, in 1699. Europeans had been in the New World almost 200 years, and the geography of many areas was relatively well known. The Mississippi River delta was a notable exception. In the late 1600s, three European powers were vying for control of eastern North America. Although there was considerable interaction and competition, and at times war, in general the powers eventually developed...

    • 4. European Colonization, Occupation, and Conflict
      (pp. 37-48)

      Even before New Orleans was developed, Lake Pontchartrain, Bayou Manchac, and Bayou St. John had become important waterways for the transport of goods to the French colony at Mobile. The voyageurs were active in the upper Mississippi valley and would transport to Mobile by way of Lake Pontchartrain pelts, lead, bear’s oil, slaves, smoked meat, wheat, and flour (Giraud 1974), even though Bayou Manchac was almost dry for nine months of the year and choked up with dead wood (Le Page du Pratz 1774). In 1712 Martin D’Artaguiette, a French Commissary of Marine, made plans for diverting the Mississippi River...

    • 5. Louisiana Statehood
      (pp. 49-61)

      Louisiana became the eighteenth state in 1812, and with the coming of statehood, more and more American settlers moved into the area. Louisiana’s population doubled between 1810 (76,556) and 1820 (153,407), with most of this growth in the southeast. The nineteenth century was to be a period of rapid population increase for the Pontchartrain basin, with the state’s population surpassing 1 million by 1890 and New Orleans exceeding 240,000. This population expansion brought major environmental impacts as the natural areas became modified by human activities, including development of new towns, roads, and railroads, increased clearing of land for farming, extensive...

    • 6. Civil War
      (pp. 62-66)

      Union forces controlled Lake Pontchartrain, as well as New Orleans, for most of the Civil War (Nichols 1990). At the beginning of the war in 1861, New Orleans and other Gulf coast ports were blockaded, and Confederate blockade runners became common, traveling across the lake or to Mobile and other ports to provide New Orleans with supplies (Roberts 1946). Forts at the Rigolets (Fort Pike) and Chef Menteur Pass (Fort Macombe) guarded the entrance into Lake Pontchartrain but saw little action during the war. On April 24, 1862, New Orleans fell to the Union forces invading from the Mississippi River,...

    • 7. Post-War Development
      (pp. 67-76)

      After the Civil War, the lakeshore at Milneburg, Spanish Fort, and West End, as well as Mandeville on the north shore, again became popular recreational sites for residents wanting to escape the city and the fear of yellow fever. The wealthier residents fled to summer cottages in Mandeville or to the Mississippi Gulf coast. The north shore became known as the “Ozone Belt,” because of the erroneous perception of the medicinal quality of its air (Stall 1997). Paddlewheelers to carry visitors from Milneburg to Mandeville became popular (Roberts 1946). One of these was theZephyr, launched in 1847 in New...

      (pp. 77-98)

      By 1900, the population of New Orleans had reached such a level that significant human impacts on Lake Pontchartrain were becoming more evident, but the population was to continue increasing at an ever higher rate during the twentieth century (Table 3; Figure 8.1). This population growth generated a desire for more developable land as well as additional recreational opportunities, and it increased the sources and volume of pollutants entering Lake Pontchartrain.

      The focus on Lake Pontchartrain as a site for recreation reached a peak in the early 1900s. Bayou St. John was populated by numerous boathouses, houseboats, and squatters’ shacks...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 101-103)

      The story of Lake Pontchartrain during the latter part of the twentieth century has primarily revolved around its abuse and increased pollution, its potential loss as a valuable recreational resource, and its attempted restoration. Of course, environmental modification of the Pontchartrain basin and pollution problems began much earlier. Some were even evident on a local scale when New Orleans was first settled and began to experience sewage and drainage problems almost immediately. Lopez (2003) identified periods when human activities resulted in significant environmental degradation or alteration of the natural environment in the Pontchartrain basin:

      These problems were to become more...

    • 9. Loss of Natural Habitats and Biodiversity
      (pp. 104-128)

      Most if not all environmental problems begin with human modification of the natural environment, such as clearing of land, changing water flow characteristics, introduction of new species, and release of wastes. As long as the human population is small and functioning in harmony with the natural environment, the environmental problems will be minimal. Such was apparently the case with the indigenous peoples who occupied the Pontchartrain basin. Although there was some land clearing for agriculture or construction of lodges and setting fires to clear forest undergrowth, their activities were mostly in harmony with nature and relatively minimal compared to modern...

    • 10. Water Quality Degradation
      (pp. 129-150)

      By 1962 water quality had become so degraded that Pontchartrain Beach and other bathing beaches were posted with “no swimming” signs. Pollution concerns had been significant years before but any substantive action had mostly been avoided. Rivers and streams of the north shore had also been treated as sewers and contributed to the lake’s pollution. People had continued swimming in the lake and rivers during the period when water quality was at its worst, even though health concerns were warranted (Cabelli et al. 1982; Englande et al. 2002). Such actions only emphasize further the tremendous potential value of a clean...

    • 11. Environmental Recovery and Restoration
      (pp. 151-158)

      As the Lake Pontchartrain environmental quality continued to degrade through the second half of the twentieth century, more public and official concern was being expressed for the need to remedy the environmental problems and restore the lake. Although there were many studies documenting environmental concerns prior to 1980, the first comprehensive environmental analysis of Lake Pontchartrain and its surrounding wetlands was completed in that year by personnel at Louisiana State University (Stone 1980; also see Stone et al. 1982). This document, known as the “Stone Report,” recognized three major environmental trends within Lake Pontchartrain: loss of wetlands, increased nutrients, and...


    • Introduction
      (pp. 161-161)

      Lake Pontchartrain and its sister lakes are major Gulf coast estuarine waters supporting an abundance of life and providing significant fisheries and recreational opportunities. Efforts to conserve and restore this ecosystem will hopefully continue and its environmental quality will improve. The following chapters describe the major environmental characteristics of the lakes as they are today....

    • 12. Physical Description
      (pp. 162-181)

      Because the Lake Pontchartrain system receives saline water input from its passes (average about 1.5 cu. mi./year, 6.4 km³/year, or about 33% of the total inflow to the lake; Waldon and Bryan 1999), as well as fresh water from its tributary rivers and bayous (1.7 cu. mi./year, 7.2 km³/year, or about 36% of the total inflow), it is defined as an estuary. In the strict sense, this mixing of fresh and salt water means that Lake Pontchartrain is not truly a lake. By definition, a lake is “an inland body of water, usually fresh water, formed by glaciers, river drainage,...

    • 13. Water Chemistry
      (pp. 182-188)

      The Lake Pontchartrain estuary is characterized by the mixing of fresh water from its tributary rivers and streams with saline water entering from its connections with the Gulf of Mexico. Fresh water from rivers and streams is a complex mixture of dissolved and particulate matter that can vary widely. Seawater is a complex mixture of many ionic salts and other substances dissolved in water. The combination of these mixtures results in an extremely complex chemistry in any estuary. Additional substances enter via urban runoff, diffusion from sediments, and atmospheric deposition. This chapter describes some of the more significant chemical components...

    • 14. Biota of the Pontchartrain Basin
      (pp. 189-195)

      The generally variable conditions of changing salinity levels, temperature, water level, currents, oxygen, and other factors create conditions in Lake Pontchartrain and other estuaries that make survival for most aquatic organisms difficult. Consequently this rigorous environment is occupied by relatively few species. However, the freshwater runoff entering the system carries with it dissolved chemicals such as nitrates and phosphates that are important nutrients for aquatic plants. Therefore estuaries are usually characterized by very high biological productivity, much higher than in the open ocean or in fresh water. The relatively few species that can tolerate the variable conditions can take advantage...

    • 15. The Estuarine Communities
      (pp. 196-216)

      The large volume of open water in the three lakes of the Pontchartrain estuary, as well as the water and substrate surfaces, shoreline, and adjacent marshes, provides a large amount of estuarine living space available to aquatic organisms. Most of these organisms are euryhaline and able to tolerate a wide range of salinity variation and are therefore widely distributed in the lakes. However, there is also some variation in species distribution with salinity, so that more freshwater species tend to occur in Lake Maurepas, while more marine species occupy Lake Borgne and eastern Lake Pontchartrain. During periods of higher salinity,...

    • 16. The Marsh Communities
      (pp. 217-230)

      Surrounding almost all estuaries is a vast expanse of emergent marsh vegetation that benefits from the rich nutrients provided in the estuarine water and sediments, plus the high level of direct solar radiation needed for photosynthesis, to produce one of the most biologically productive ecological communities on earth. The marshes are dominated by various species of grasses, sedges, and rushes, depending upon salinity levels. The salinity gradient across the estuary determines the species of dominant plants characteristic of the marshes, although there are no clear dividing lines and one type tends to gradually merge with another. In addition, the salinity...

    • 17. Estuarine Food Webs
      (pp. 231-239)

      Among the most significant features of any ecosystem are the various feeding or trophic relationships among the numerous species and the pathways by which resources are transferred from one trophic level to another as foods. Such patterns of energy transfer are commonly referred to as food chains or webs. Food webs are usually quite complex and difficult to generalize, but several major features can be recognized. Trophic relationships in Lake Pontchartrain are based primarily upon two studies of feeding habits of fishes or larger invertebrates. Darnell (1958, 1961) analyzed the stomach contents of thirty-five of the most important consumer species,...

    • 18. The Palustrine Communities
      (pp. 240-246)

      The major vegetation type of the Pontchartrain basin forested wetlands is bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and tupelo (Nyssa aquaticaandN. sylvatica) swamps. These cypress-tupelo swamps are characteristic of coastal Louisiana and the Southeast where wetlands occur with salinities averaging below about 4 ppt. However, several different community types may be recognized based upon the dominant trees. For example, the Louisiana Natural Heritage Program (1988) defined three types: bald cypress–tupelo swamps, where the two species are codominants; bald cypress swamps, where cypress is dominant; and tupelo–black gum swamps, whereNyssa aquaticaandN. sylvaticavar.bifloraare codominants....

    • 19. The Riverine and Lacustrine Communities
      (pp. 247-249)

      The major freshwater tributaries to the Lake Pontchartrain system include the Blind River, Amite River, and Tickfaw River, which flow into Lake Maurepas, and the Tangipahoa River, Tchefuncte River, Bayou Lacombe, and Bayou Bonfouca, as well as several smaller bayous (Chinchuba, Castine, and Cane) that flow into Lake Pontchartrain. The Pearl River has a direct impact on Lake Borgne, as well as an indirect effect on Lake Pontchartrain. On the southern shore, the natural bayous have mostly been converted into drainage ditches that drain the New Orleans metropolitan area, although Bayous LaBranche/Trepagnier and St. John still retain some semblance of...

    • 20. The Terrestrial Communities
      (pp. 250-256)

      Of the various community types present in the Pontchartrain basin, the upland forested areas have changed the most during the 300 years since European settlement. The prairie terrace to the north of Lake Pontchartrain, deposited during the Pleistocene, has been described as covered originally by an almost homogeneous forest of longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and slash pine (Pinus elliotti), with mixed hardwoods along the streams. Although certainly oversimplified, such a description does demonstrate the dominance of longleaf pine in the upland areas north of Lake Pontchartrain. Of course, much of this original forested land is quite different today. Virtually none...

  12. Postscript: Success?
    (pp. 257-260)

    The Lakes of Pontchartrain and their tributaries provide many valuable resources to the 1.5 million people who now live within the Lake Pontchartrain basin, including recreation, fisheries, and transportation. The populace has also had significant impacts on the lakes. As with many water bodies around the world, Lake Pontchartrain and its sister lakes have suffered environmental abuse and degradation. Their waters have been fouled, their wetlands destroyed, their surrounding forests cut, their shorelines littered, their beaches closed. They have been used and abused. However, various groups such as the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation have worked to improve the condition of...

  13. References Cited
    (pp. 261-294)
  14. General Index
    (pp. 295-307)
  15. Taxonomic Index
    (pp. 308-319)