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January 25, 2008
Photography by Paula Burch-Celentano
The “ding” of the elevator bell marks the start of another day working to save a precious little corner of the environment. Carlton Dufrechou (E ’78, ’93), executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, uses the ride up to his 20th-floor office to center his thoughts around the hundreds of details that are going into the foundation’s efforts from revitalizing the lake to developing an ambitious program combining coastal restoration and hurricane storm protection.
Lake and coast alike are encompassed in the 10,000-square-mile basin from which the foundation takes its name. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin is a system of waterways, forests, swamps, coastal marshes and barrier islands that incorporates parts of 16 Louisiana parishes and four Mississippi counties.
With 1.2 million people living in the immediate vicinity of the lake, it remains Louisiana’s most densely populated area even after Hurricane Katrina.
Just as the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation’s “Save Our Lake” slogan became a mantra around which to rally efforts to bring back the lake from near death in the 1990s, Dufrechou is hoping the foundation’s “Save Our Coast” initiative will similarly galvanize the public’s will.
His modestly decorated corner office is equipped with a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the New Orleans Central Business District. The window opposite frames Lake Pontchartrain as if it were a work of art, while a surfboard leans against the wall “for decoration.”
Squinting into the sunlight that dances through the window, Dufrechou points out that from his office you can now see aquatic grasses beneath the lake’s surface. To see the lake’s bottom, he says, was impossible a decade ago.
Dufrechou says he didn’t plan on becoming an environmental guru. It just happened that way.
“My father was a Tulane architect and when I went to college that’s what I had planned to study,” says Dufrechou. However, influenced by the knowledge that an engineering degree could be achieved in four years of coursework compared to the five-year architecture curriculum, he figured that the engineering program would be a better fit.
The coursework itself would not prove to be so simple. “I never recognized the magnitude of studying that would be involved in engineering,” he confesses, with an I’m-glad-that’s-over look. (Though he may be a glutton for punishment, because he would later return to Tulane in the 1990s to earn his master’s degree in engineering.)
In 1978, Dufrechou emerged from his undergraduate study ready to take on the world. He credits his degree to many talented, dedicated and patient professors and “unique, wonderful and sometimes crazy” classmates who tutored him through junior and senior design courses. His ambitions were not unlike those of other 20-somethings — he hoped to be set financially by the age of 30 and then go back to school only for fun courses like wine tasting and art.
In time, external forces propelled him to make more pragmatic career moves. “Louisiana had a recession in the mid ’80s associated with a downturn in oil and gas activities. While I wasn’t doing oil and gas work, I was working in real estate development, which went down the tubes, too,” he recalls. “That’s when I was offered a job with the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers. I was truly fortunate to find an engineering job at that time in Louisiana.”
From 1986 through 1992, Dufrechou worked as a planner and project manager for the New Orleans district of the Corps. He remembers being a bit of a renegade with respect to some of the Corps’ practices.
“They’ve got some of the finest folks I’ve ever met, and it’s one of the few entities on the planet that can do such a wide range of work,” he says. “However, it’s also one of the worst bureaucracies on earth.”
The first project given Dufrechou as a member of the Corps was to develop a flood-control plan for a rural, farming area just above Alexandria, La.
He remembers being instructed to come up with a design before asking the local farmers — the clients — what was the problem they wanted addressed.
“I was told that we would develop the project in the office. It would be reviewed and approved internally and then presented to the public,” he says. In this process, the community would have little or no involvement. “This was completely contrary to how the private sector works,” says Dufrechou. It was all about process and little about results.
“Eventually, I was able to get to the area because it started flooding and the Corps was getting complaints from several congressionals,” he says. “I was sent up overnight. Finally, we were able to meet with the locals and learn from their firsthand experiences.”
The hydrology, storm protection and environmental experience offered by the Corps would prepare Dufrechou to vie for the position of executive director of the fledgling Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. Dufrechou notes that he always wanted to be part of a great endeavor and sensed this could be it. After presenting his resume, he was invited to interview with the foundation’s board and its technical advisory committee. After responding to numerous technical questions he found himself stumped by the final question.
“Why?” they asked. “Why do you want to do this?” Dufrechou admits he was more than taken aback. “I had prepared for technical questions,” he says.
It was his second interview with the group. Then 36 years old, Dufrechou glanced out of the window beyond the panel of interviewers. “I didn’t know what to say, but suddenly something made me invite the interviewers to turn around and look at Pontchartrain.”
“We’ve got to restore this body of water because it’s part of the community,” Dufrechou told them.
Having won the confidence of the board, Dufrechou took the helm of the three-year old nonprofit foundation in 1992. The lake’s health was dismal then. As early as the 1960s the mix of pollutants from urban, commercial and agricultural sources had grown to such unacceptable levels that “no swimming” advisories were posted along the lake’s south shore by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.
The lake’s water quality was so poor that the state discontinued regular sampling of its waters in the late 1970s. Another Tulane graduate, state Sen. John Hainkel, began referring to Pontchartrain as a “cesspool.”
“There was no rocket science used to restore the lake,” says Dufrechou. The first step was to systematically identify the sources of pollution. “We dealt with stormwater runoff from the south shore, poorly treated sewage from the north shore, agricultural runoff and shell dredging.”
In the process, Dufrechou remembers getting input from a veteran commercial fisherman living on the north shore who offered his own take on technical topics such as nutrient overloads, dead zones and fish kills. “We really were not on the same page at first,” says Dufrechou about the fisherman. “I kept asking him to show us data and facts, but he couldn’t point to any technical journals or publications.”
But by the mid 1990s, when field data began to improve and computer models of the lake’s flow patterns became operational, Dufrechou says the science validated almost everything the fisherman had told him.
The fisherman was right on target, and the conversations Dufrechou had with him helped shape a core belief that continues to influence his work: all the technical know how in the world will fall short if it isn’t complemented with practical knowledge.
By the 2000, “the lake had cured itself,” says Dufrechou. “All we humans did was stop the pollution going into it.”
The lake is again swimmable. The redfish, speckled trout, pelicans and egrets have returned.
At 51, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Dufrechou is broadening his perspective and that of the foundation. If there was any doubt before the storm, it has since become clear that levees are not the end-all solution to the city’s hurricane protection needs.
Dufrechou gives equal or greater importance to the preserving and restoring of the natural barriers of the Louisiana coast. He believes the same strategy that led to the recovery of Lake Pontchartrain — giving nature a chance to rebuild itself by curtailing harmful human practices — also will be integral to restoring the coast. It is a sizable task that he says is attainable by changing the way people interact with at-risk areas.
While restoring habitat will be key to coastal restoration, Dufrechou emphasizes that the first step is simply to do no further harm.
Few undertakings by humans have been more harmful to coastal areas of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin than the digging of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), a canal that was scooped out of 40 miles of coastal wetlands in the late 1950s and early 1960s at the direction of Congress.
The purpose of MRGO was to provide a shortcut for ships that would otherwise have to snake up 120 miles of the Mississippi River.
Unfortunately, the outlet also served as a shortcut for the saline waters of the Gulf of Mexico to flow into the brackish and fresh waters of the Pontchartrain Basin, an invasion that led to the degradation of much of the coast east of the Mississippi River and one of the state’s natural hurricane barriers.
“When the saltwater came in, the vegetation started to become more vulnerable, and anytime there was a storm or even strong wave action we’d experience more and more wetland loss,” says Dufrechou. “As the years progressed, the MRGO probably more than anything else helped accelerate the land loss of the areas east and south of New Orleans.”
In May 2006 testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Dufrechou likened MRGO to a “cancer, progressively eating away at coastal wetlands,” and pleaded with Congress to deauthorize the canal.
With the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, Congress has authorized the Corps of Engineers to close MRGO, and while that is an important milestone, it is only one piece of the puzzle.
Late last year, the Bush administration approved funding for more than 100 projects to help recreate a self-sustaining coastal protection system. They are the kind of conservation and water-diversion projects that the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation has outlined in its multiple lines of defense strategy that integrates coastal restoration with engineered flood protection.
The “lines of defense” are both man-made and natural and include barrier islands, sounds, marshes, natural ridges, man-made ridges, floodgates, levees, pump stations, elevated homes and businesses, and evacuation routes. Restoring targeted habitat sites, such as swamps and marshes, is integral to recreating a self-sustaining coast and permanent storm protection for coastal communities.
In working to tack down the particulars of this strategy’s multiple facets, Dufrechou has not forgotten the importance of supplementing scientific data collection with insights gained from the people whose lives and livelihoods are most closely tied to these habitats. “The people who know the most about the coast are the folks who work it everyday,” he says. “I have the utmost respect for scientists and engineers and God knows we need more of them, but we’ve always got to check with the people who have lived and worked in the area.
“Ask the old fishermen. They know where the water goes, why it goes there and when it goes there,” says Dufrechou. “They even know the types of critters that used to be there. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s to listen to the folks in the field and try to pay attention to what they have to say.”
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