Edwards, Broome mark official start of long-awaited University Lakes restoration project
Gov. John Bel Edwards and East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome toured a long-awaited dredging project now underway at the University Lakes Thursday, as contractors begin work revitalizing the neglected features of the Louisiana State University campus.
Edwards and Broome announced in April that the city, state and university had cobbled together the $50 million needed to complete the project's first phase. Now, contractors have erected a dredging barge in a corner of University Lake, the largest of the six bodies of water, to test the hydraulic and mechanical dredging processes that will be used throughout the project.
“This has been an asset for LSU, for the city of Baton Rouge, for the state of Louisiana for so long, these lakes — just naturally beautiful," Edwards said. "But quite frankly, we haven’t maintained them very well.”
Edwards noted that decades of sediment build-up had brought the lakes’ average depth to about 5 feet, which has diminished water quality and contributed to unsightly algae blooms and fish kills. Restoring a healthy lake ecosystem could lure back dwindling migratory bird populations.
“Making sure that we are restoring these lakes to the proper depth, creating more amenities as we build the shorelines, and so forth, I think is going to be very, very important,” Edwards said.
Phase 1 of the project consists of dredging five of the smaller lakes — Campus, City Park, College, Crest and Erie Lakes — to their original depth of about 20 feet. The first phase will also include the construction of new sidewalks, bike paths, lighting and a new bridge at May Street. The landbridge there, which currently separates City Park and University Lakes, would give way to a high bridge that would connect the lakes and allow people and paddlers to easily travel between the two largest bodies of water in the system.
Edwards said the most important function the improved lakes would serve is flood risk reduction.
The deepening of the lakes and the installation of water level control mechanisms could allow for the planned release of lake water ahead of major rain events to mitigate flood risk in the surrounding area.
“If these lakes hold more water, then that’s less water in our neighborhoods,” Edwards said.
Project planners hope that sediment control measures incorporated into the lake project could make this the last time they have to undergo the arduous dredging process.
The second phase of the project, which focuses on dredging University Lake, has an estimated price tag of $31 million. Of that amount, $26 million is expected to come through the state’s capital outlay process.
Jay Dardenne, head of the state Division of Administration and Edwards’ top budget advisor, said $6 million is available right now, and the remaining $20 million could be available as soon as next year if state lawmakers designate the lake restoration as a high-priority project.
But as federal coronavirus relief dollars dry up and with the expiration of a temporary state sales tax on the horizon, it remains unclear if lawmakers will have the means or the political will to cover the remaining costs of the project.
Dardenne said the administration is fully committed to the project.
“There’s a be
nefit from a flood damage protection side. And there’s tremendous benefit from an aesthetic side in improving the lakes for LSU and the Baton Rouge community,” Dardenne said, adding that he’s confident that the state will be able to secure the additional funds through either the legislative process or alternate means.
“Once this project is underway and the public realizes the value that it is going to bring to the city and to the campus and the state as a whole that the partners in this… are going to do what is necessary to raise the additional money needed,” Dardenne said.
Dardenne said because the revitalization project serves multiple purposes — ranging from flood mitigation to wildlife habitat restoration and public recreation — it could be eligible for a wide range of competitive federal grants, potentially reducing the amount that would come from the state coffers.
He noted that the state secured the final $10 million needed to begin the first phase of the project through a flood risk mitigation block grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“There’s an unprecedented amount of federal dollars available in so many different areas,” Dardenne said. “So we’re going to be looking for every possible source of federal funding that could use to augment what we’re doing with these other sources of money.”