Friday, September 18, 2009

Lake Martin Water Is On The Rise

Before we get to the good news at Lake Martin, check out Anne's new book about Louisiana swamp tours, Louisiana Swamp Tours: The Definitive Guide. It is a must for anyone considering all of the options available statewide.

Many good things are happening at Lake Martin lately, which is a turn around from the environmentally tragic events there of the past decade.

1. The Nature Conservancy is constructing long needed and much awaited public restrooms at their new visitor center soon to open on the south side of the lake near the rookery. The walkway they built into the rookery earlier this year as seen below, leads right into the restrooms across the bayou.


2. The water levels appear to be on the rise as of this past weekend.
Let's hope they dont pull the plug and begin draining the lake this September, like they have for the last eight years. The nesting birds need the water!

I did a couple of swamp tours today and the tours, I loaded my boat on the trailer, and drove down to the south side of the rookery to inspect the drain gate(as seen below). What I expected to see this time of year, is not what I found. This control structure is adjustable, and used every fall now for the last 8 years to drain the swamp. I was pleasantly surprised to see more additions to the control structure planks, allowing more water to be trapped(rather than drained) and thus hopefully raising the water levels.

I don't like this photo because it looks like a solid metal top. Actually the top is constructed of an aluminum grate which was designed to allow water to rise up and drain into the top and also allows visual inspection and access of the operation of the 6" removable drain planks in the drain.

The reason the drain gate was designed and installed this way, with the top being constructed of grating, was to allow the water to come up to the top and drain through the grating. But, since being installed the water has never been allowed to rise that high.

The old spillway on the north side which was the high water control outlet prior to the one The Nature Conservancy installed on the south side, illustrates where the water was allowed to rise to. Since the new outlet has been installed on the south side, the old spillway is useless, except to gauge where the high water mark was 10 years ago.

Prior to The Nature Conservancy monkeying around with the water levels and installing this drain gate on their property, the water at Lake Martin was often about 18" higher than it has been for the last eight years. Since they have had the ability to drain and set the height of the spillway and thus control how high or low the water gets either way, the bird population has been in a constant state of adjustment.

When the water levels were 18" higher, the nesting bird population was at it's peak.

A couple of years ago, the nesting bird population was only about 5% of what it was at it's peak after 2000-2001. I don't know if low water levels are the primary cause of the disappearance of tens of thousands of pairs of wading birds who nested here for decades, but I do know that raising the planks on the outflow control structure and letting the water come up naturally from rain fall is the easiest and most cost effective experiment we could try to determine what attracted the birds to nest at Lake Martin in the first place.

Now having the drain gate installed on their property, The Nature Conservancy is in direct conflict with the vast majority of fisherman and duck hunters in the lake. I know, because I interview these people every chance I can get in Lake Martin Landing as I use the landing to launch my swamp tours.

Thus having the power to raise or lower water levels and with that, total control of the water levels on the entire lake area used by all recreational users, The Nature Conservancy has a lot of nerve in my opinion to propose that this lower water level benefits the birds and all the recreational users by improving water quality. For the entire time this control structure has been in place, The Nature Conservancy has kept the water at least 18" below normal and buried it's head in the swamp muck, in my opinion, regarding it's effect on the nesting birds. Not only have they kept the water about 18" below where it was most of the time prior to the birds gradually departing, beginning in 2001, they cause it to drain out and be about 3' below normal for about 4-6 months per year by removing planks in the control structure.

Before that, the water would come up to the high level on the old control structure on the north side every time we had a lot of rain(even with the top of the drain gate cover, which was set at the same elevation as the old spillway on the north side). During drought periods the water would naturally go down periodically due to evaporation exceding precipitation and according to fluctuations in the climate might at times be a lot higher during typical Louisiana monsoon produced flooding. Such was the case in June 2001 when Tropical Storm Allison dumped 40" of rain in 5 days and raised the water levels about 5 feet over the levels allowed to rise at present.

It appears The Nature Conservancy has modeled it's water management policies at Lake Martin in line with the seasonal variations of the water levels in the Atchafalaya Basin. Which is not very wise, in my opinion. But who is listening to me, I am just a dumb Coonass swamp tour guide with a high school education who has been in the rookery developing a close personal relationship with all the wild inhabitants, and thus in close proximity of these nesting birds here for over 20 years. My presence in the rookery as a swamp tour guide allowed me to observe bird nesting behavior and although my field work might be of significant contribution to understanding the great mysterious disappearance of the birds, no one has ever talked to me and asked for my opinions.

The nesting area of the wading birds at Lake Martin and in The Cypress Island Preserve is the primary public relations resource of The Nature Conservancy in it's preserve here, but the prerserve is being grossly mismanaged in my opinion.

One of the greatest short comings in mismangement at Lake Martin is due to The Nature Conservancy hiring outsiders to come here from New York or wherever and these employees are grossly out of touch with the culture not to mention the ecology.

Although I have reported my observations to Richard Martin, Cindy Brown and everyone else who were onsite managers after her, no one has ever attempted to contact me to ask for insight into the problems of poaching, destruction of habitat, water levels, water quality, etc.

I believe this is due to them percieving me as "the bad guy" for doing tours into the rookery.

I don't hate The Nature Conservancy, I hate what they are doing to Lake Martin. And what they are doing affects everyone using the lake, be it recreational boaters, fishermen, duck hunters, photographers, tourists, and most importantly, the wading birds who attempt to nest here every year!

Below is an image of me standing on top of the drain and gives a more accurate perspective of the drain size.

Hopefully the Wildlife and Fisheries and Nature Conservancy are realizing that the annual drainage of the water and thus lower water levels in the rookery are possible causes of the departure of the birds from the nesting areas in the Lake Martin Cypress Island Preserve.

This September, instead of pulling out panels and allowing the water levels to go down, someone has added a couple of panels to the top of the control structure and that is causing the water levels in Lake Martin to rise.

Could it be that a dumb, Cajun swamp tour guide with only a high school education is embarrassing these over paid, educated fools who manage Lake Martin, with his blog articles and affecting their present water management policies?

At any rate, considering the departure of the birds is possibly the result of the failure of past management activity, why not experiment with higher water levels for a change?

For eight or nine years now, The Nature Conservancy and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries have been conducting an experiment(in my opinion), hoping to improve the water quality at the lake by lowering the water levels in the fall season of every year. They then promise to pump the water back in and restore the water level before the birds begin to nest in the spring. But wait... I see Great Blue Herons staging nesting sites in the middle of January before the pumps were even turned on! The Nature Conservancy has by my observations, failed to give back to the lake the water that they took away the season before when they pulled the drain planks and drained it.

As you can see in the photo below, they did turn on the pump on the north side of the lake in February 2009 and helped raise the water level a little.

But not to where it was before they drained it.

In my opinion they failed to pump and return enough of the water to an acceptable level equal to what it was before they lowered it last fall. And not enough to flood the land under the grove of trees where the Great Blue Herons nested a decade ago before the water was being lowered. As seen in the photos below.

What I did not realize until I began closely observing the water management practices here this year is that the water levels are intentionally be kept about 18" below where it was when the birds population was at it's highest.

It is common knowledge that these wading birds nest in trees that grow in water year round because the water holds alligators and alligators protect the birds from predators that can swim and climb trees. These same predators will not swim in water with alligators because they will not survive if they do.

The Nature Conservancy claimed that it was OK to drain the lake and lower the water in the autumn season because it did not conflict or interfere with the nesting season in the spring. I disagree on that position because it is my belief that if it is not safe for the birds to roost there all year long, the birds will not nest there in the spring. And on that note, the ban on boat traffic in the rookery should in my opinion be year round, not just during the nesting season.

Furtheremore, the nesting season does not start in the spring, but at the beginning of winter when the Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets arrive in the second and third weeks of January and begin selecting nesting locations in the tops of tall cypress trees as seen in the photos below.

What is interesting and actually hard for me to believe, is that these birds are starting nests in January, while numerous swamp tour boats are in the nesting area daily and legal duck hunting is going on with excessive discharge of shotguns in the rookery every morning for several weeks before hunting season closes at the end of January. These tour boat and hunting activities appear to cause no disturbance of the birds plan to nest, based upon my observation of doing tours daily in the rookery for over 20 years.

Below is a photo of a large number and variety of wading birds in an area where water is present year round.

Along with the drainage of the water to lower the water levels, I also have issues with the application of herbicides and the killing off of hundreds of acres of button bush and the floating mats of plants on three sides of Lake Martin as seen below.

These photos illustrate that not only is the natural beauty being destroyed, we are systematically diminishing the food supply present in the floating mats of plants which feed the wading birds who nest here every winter and spring.

I am not only here at Lake Martin to share the natural beauty of our state with our visiting guests, I also have an obligation to protect the defenseless wild inhabitants of south Louisiana and educate the local and tourist public at large regarding the dangers of using 2-4-d, (a.k.a. Agent Orange) in our wilderness areas such as Lake Martin.

In the image below, you can see the hundreds of acres of button bush stumps which were killed by herbicide activity and are now dead reminders of the once plant rich feeding grounds that were part of the ecology at Lake Martin 10 years ago.

I showed Richard Martin of the Nature Conservancy this area in November last year and how much button bush had been killed along with the floating mats of plants. He agreed that plant control had been out of control in this area. And he then pointed out that we could not restore these important plants unless we drained the lake for a few years to allow the button bush to sprout on dry land.

Well Richard, how about the water. How hard will it be to restore the water levels to it's former abundant supply like it was when the birds were at it's peak 10 years ago?