Historic New Orleans Bayou St. John: A NOAA Hydraulic Restoration Poster Child
Once an important waterway to reach the French Quarter, then forgotten, Bayou St. John has been restored and become a destination for many New Orleanians.
By Rusty Gaude’, Louisiana Sea Grant
In 1699, the French explorer Pierre Le Moyne Sieur d’Iberville encountered American Indians as he was stumbling around the southern shores of Lake Pontchartrain in southern Louisiana. He was looking for a short overland route to the river, and the Indians brought him to a sleepy bayou that successfully put he and his men near the east bank of the Mississippi. That discovery of what would become known as Bayou St. John [BSJ] fated the placement of the colony of Nouvelle Orleans, providing a calm-water access route for the wind-driven trade to and from the center of the Louisiana Territory.
With the invention of the steam engine and then internal combustion, the trade route on Bayou St. John fell from favor giving way to the Mississippi River. The once critical bayou degraded to a relic distributary whose main significance was a flood liability during hurricanes. Consequently, BSJ was locked and finally dammed to prevent storms flooding New Orleans. Little or no thought was given to the health or integrity of the waterway.
Replacing a functional 1930’s lock, water control for the upstream Bayou degraded through a derelict, inoperative valve structure, now removed by Sea Grant/NOAA efforts. Credit: Rusty Gaude'
In 2011, the fate and character of BSJ changed again. As part of the NOAA’s Hydrological Restoration Program, a proposal submitted by Louisiana Sea Grant was awarded initial funding to restore vital water flow to BSJ by eliminating redundant and dysfunctional water control structures built in the 1960s. With support and supplemental funding from the Orleans Levee District, the publicly championed project was finished in late 2013.
For the first time in nearly 50 years, incoming water from the source waters of Lake Pontchartrain rush upsteam in Bayou St. John to recharge the stream with new recruitment and vitality. Credit: Rusty Gaude'
With involvement of Burk-Kleinpeter Inc. Engineering and additional participation by no less than 12 uncompensated agencies/organizations, supplemental channel dredging completed the connection between the Lake’s brackish waters and the interior of BSJ. Suitable aquatic species once again are recolonizing the tidally influenced bayou and restoring historic assemblages witnessed by Iberville. And with the dredged spoil planted and stabilized by volunteers, the banks have taken on the visual appearance of a pre-colonial shoreline.
Long since abandoned by commercial water boats, Bayou St. John slipped into a static hydraulic condition, with little diversity or resource development. Pictured in the back ground is the Superdome. Credit: Rusty Gaude'
Documented by monitoring systems installed by Louisiana Sea Grant nearly a decade earlier, the predictable, sustainable management of the water level and character has given back to New Orleanians an authentic tidal waterway. With these management tools in place, the second phase outlining the safe public use of the protected waterway now takes center stage.
With BSJ fast becoming the destination for festivals, weddings, academic focus and near constant public use, its attention now warrants mention as a candidate for a linear national park, retracing a historic and influential water path to the French Quarter.