How Bayou Vermilion went from the most polluted river to a prized resource

Posted in: Misc Water Issues, United States Water News, Water Contamination
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A trash boom in the Vermilion at the South College bridge. (Photo Credit: Lee Celano)

Article Courtesy of Erin Segura | April 4, 2016 | The Advertiser | Shared as educational material

Picture this: a beautiful bayou, the most iconic representation of Louisiana culture – draped with Spanish moss, dotted with bright-eyed and eager paddlers enjoying the serenity of nature, free from the distractions of the mechanized world.

The 36-mile stretch of Bayou Vermilion that flows through Lafayette Parish is just that.

However, many of us who reap the benefits of the river today aren’t fully aware of its troublesome past.

Nearly 40 years ago, the Vermilion earned the infamous title of “most grossly polluted river in the United States.” It’s a shocking statement, and one that has a lot of history behind it.

So how did the waterway that we celebrate today get to this point? And how did it make its way from being a liability to becoming a cultural and environmental resource?

The answers may surprise you.

Ultimately, the 1927 flood of Mississippi River, the most destructive flood in U.S. history, was the start of what led to the Vermilion’s demise.

In the early 1900s, the Vermilion was a tributary of Atchafalaya River, which meant there was fresh water flowing from its headwaters near Krotz Springs to its outlet at Vermilion Bay.

In the aftermath of the deluge, the federal government began building protection levees. This process took until the 1940s to complete, and the end result cut off the Vermilion from its tributary, turning it into a “lake” – there was no flow, and the water became stagnant.

Fast-forward to Lafayette’s oil boom: from 1940 to 1970, the city’s population increased by 75 percent.

Industry skyrocketed, bringing agricultural runoff, dairy farms, slaughterhouses, sugar mills, food processing plants and sewage treatment centers – none of which were well-regulated.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Vermilion’s pollution problem was the topic of theses, surveys and newspaper articles, and the public was becoming more environmentally conscious as a whole.

We had reached a critical point, and local community groups knew action was desperately needed.

In 1983, the Teche-Vermilion Freshwater Project breathed new life into the Vermilion by creating a pumping station that restored the flow of fresh water from the Atchafalaya – it was the first sign of hope that the Vermilion could overcome its obstacles.

In 1984, the Louisiana Legislature established the Bayou Vermilion District with funds from property tax revenue to do “any and all acts which would enhance the general condition of the Bayou.”

Better known as the BVD, its two purposes were to 1) improve the water quality and to beautify the bayou “in an effort to promote [it] as a recreational and cultural asset,” and 2) “create and control a new type of viable economic development adjacent to the Vermilion so as to provide a diversified economic base for the city and parish of Lafayette” – thus, Vermilonville was born in 1990.

For more than 30 years, BVD has worked to beautify, conserve and manage Bayou Vermilion in Lafayette Parish.

Aside from Vermilionville, we may be best known for our Bayou Operations crew, a five-person team that works to collect and remove floating debris from the river such as aluminum cans, plastic bottles and Styrofoam containers.

Since starting its trash intake records in 2001, BVD has removed more than 800,000 gallons of trash from the river.

The crew also removes large objects such as tires, television sets and other appliances – even cars – in addition to downed trees that can block the flow of the river and create dangerous situations for paddlers and boaters.

Removing debris isn’t the only task at hand in caring for the bayou; the team works to control invasive species, reduce erosion along the river banks and monitor the water quality of the Vermilion at 12 different sample sites.

Efforts to keep the Vermilion clean and keep Vermilionville open are made possible through public funding, which is now up for renewal.

Two items will be on the ballot Saturday, April 9: renewal of a property tax which supports BVD operations and renewal of public bonds which support capital improvements. According to the Lafayette Parish assessor, a homeowner with a $200,000 home and the homestead exemption would pay approximately $12 a year total for both renewals combined.

Want to enjoy the Bayou Vermilion, but you’re not sure where to get started? Join us for the following upcoming events, listed below. You can also find out more about us by visiting BayouVermilionDistrict.org.

Since 1984, Bayou Vermilion District has beautified, conserved & managed sites along the Vermilion, preserving Lafayette Parish natural & cultural sources.

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