Storm Preparedness: Water Quality
Lake Pontchartrain is the jewel of Louisiana, providing the region with a prodigious fishing economy and recreation opportunities. But with these benefits the lake has also suffered historically. After having been declared un-swimmable for decades, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation cleaned up the lake and restored it for use as a swimmable water body for Louisianans in 2006. Lake Pontchartrain is sampled weekly to monitor water quality conditions, and to track sources of pollution when they occur. This data is shared with the public and with our regional partners, informing them of current conditions as well as providing long term trend data on water quality measures.
When hazardous weather strikes it can have large impacts on the region. Storms can overwhelm the systems we have in place for managing and containing pollutants and when this happens toxins can become waterborne, getting into rivers, streams and out into the lake. With the Weekly Water Monitoring program sampling along the largest and most utilized bodies we are able to detect differences in the water quality conditions, alerting us of potentially harmful changes. Often, these pollutants can be tracked back to a source and repaired, maintaining a healthy basin for everyone to use.
While wind and storm damage is the first thing we think of when we know a hurricane is coming, once it has passed, often the most dangerous thing is standing water. This hazard can linger for days, weeks, or longer in the wake of a storm.
Larger communities in the Pontchartrain Basin have dedicated sewer treatment facilities for wastewater handling. But many homes in the Florida Parishes have homes connected to an individual sewer system for wastewater treatment. While larger community wastewater systems have their own problems, they also have redundant systems and emergency generators to mitigate long term environmental impact. Individual home systems can be death by a thousand cuts; individual wastewater systems require oxygen in the system to sufficiently treat wastewater. Without power in an extended outage, the treatment tank becomes anaerobic or devoid of oxygen, and the microbes that make individual home systems work become ineffective or die off.
Individual Wastewater Systems, common in smaller neighborhoods, are single or multi home units which breakdown human waste and transports it to ditches near the home. From there the ditches connect to streams and other waterbodies carrying away the processed waste. When flooding occurs these small systems can be overwhelmed and become a major source of pathogens in the water. With just over a half of these units fully functioning polluted water becomes a significant source of risk on an already strained system and can make people sick long after the storm has dissipated.
Working with local municipalities, the Pontchartrain Conservancy assists by going door to door and educating home owners about their Waste Water System, as well as performing a free-of-charge inspection and helping understand the steps to repairing and maintaining these units. Helping the community to better understand how their system operates, and how to recognize when there is a problem, we make a more resilient region together.
The Pontchartrain Conservancies Water Quality program began with the mission of ensuring our community had safe places in the basin where they could recreate and enjoy their watershed. By focusing on stewardship and a sense of ownership it has always been our goal for people to appreciate the lake and to become its caretakers. The lake is now clean and safe, and is a great asset for our region that people should take every opportunity to experience. However the adage holds true that 'wherever people go, trash follows' and much of the trash we are seeing is in the form of plastic pollution. As plastic breaks down, it never truly goes away, it just gets smaller. Plastics deteriorate into tiny pieces known as microplastics. These hard-to-see remnants get spread throughout the environment and consumed by living creatures such as fish, birds, and people. With the impact of storms and floodwaters litter travels throughout our drainage systems getting dispersed along our shoreline and far into the watersheds.
Therefore, Pontchartrain Conservancy, in partnership with LDEQ and Gulf of Mexico Alliance, have created a program to source plastics and other data with support from community scientists. Participants in this program are asked collect samples and identify plastic pollution all throughout the Pontchartrain Basin, as well as collect measures for algae and salinity. Community Scientists are introduced to water sampling techniques and then bring samples to our Lakefront Learning Lab, where they analyze it for various water quality conditions and microplastic content. Through this program we are learning how our community interacts with the environment and where it is that more focus will be needed.
We have exciting news that this program will be expanding to the residents of the Northshore! Tentatively starting the first week of June, participants in the LAMPs program will have access to measuring water samples at the Mandeville Department of Public Works facility in Mandeville, Louisiana. Stay tuned to our webpage for announcements and updates on this program expansion!