Overview: Health of Louisiana’s Waters

Linda Benedict  |  4/5/2005 1:15:03 AM

Patrick K. Bollich

Louisiana is known as a sportsman’s paradise and the bayou state. When people think Louisiana, they think cypress trees, alligators, seafood, fishing, hunting and trapping. The common thread that runs through all of these images is water. When talking about the quality of Louisiana’s surface waters, we are referring to its “health.” Are these waters meeting their desig-nated uses such as recreation, fish and wildlife habitat, and irrigation? If these waters are ailing, what is needed to improve their health?

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) is the state arm of the Environmental Protection Agency. One of its respon-sibilities is quality assessment of the state’s surface waters. Sources of pollutants that affect the ability of the water body to meet its designated use are identified. Management plans will ultimately be implemented to mitigate these water quality problems.

How do these management plans evolve? The LSU AgCenter has been involved in research and demonstration projects since the early 1990s to address concerns related to agricultural nonpoint-source pollution. One of the first projects involved the mitigation of sediment-laden rice field floodwater discharges in southwest Louisiana. The traditional practice of “mudding in” of rice fields consists of seedbed preparation under flooded conditions. This is a cultural method used to control red rice, a noxious weed, which until the past couple of years could not be con-trolled by chemical means. Although effective, this practice results in the suspension of soil particles and other particulate matter in the floodwater.

To encourage rice stand establishment, these fields are typically drained within days of mudding in, and the sediment flows into receiving streams.

To address the water quality concern in southwest Louisiana, a number of conservation tillage practices were evaluated for their effectiveness in reducing sediment loss. The Rice Research Station had already initiated conservation tillage research as an alternative to traditional production methods to increase yields, reduce costs and develop more environmentally friendly production practices. A cooperative project was developed among the LSU AgCenter, LDEQ and the Natural Resource Conservation Service to determine whether imple-menting these conservation tillage or “best management practices” (BMPs) would be effective in reducing sediment loading but at the same time be viable alternatives to the rice producer. This has certainly turned into a success story for Louisiana rice producers. In less than 15 years what began as a few hundred acres of conservation tillage production has turned into 32 percent of the state’s acreage, a figure approaching 200,000 acres.

The Southwest Louisiana rice project is just one of many examples of research conducted by the LSU AgCenter that has addressed water quality issues. Projects either have been conducted or are ongoing with sugar-cane, soybeans, crawfish aquaculture, forestry and pastures. Animal industries such as poultry, swine, beef and dairy also have the potential to affect water quality, and LSU AgCenter research is addressing these issues.

The backbone of all water quality research is the development and imple-mentation of BMPs. Regardless of the issues, the approach AgCenter scientists have taken is to develop alternative practices or procedures that solve the problem and at the same time keep the agricultural enterprise sustainable economically. A key component of the BMP implementation process is to encourage a high level of participation by stakeholders through education and demonstration. This encourages volun-tary participation in an attempt to avoid regulation, which potentially has a crippling effect on the industry.

This issue of Louisiana Agriculture includes a summary of activities that address water quality problems our industries face. The research cuts across economic, municipal, recreational, agricultural, aquaculture and forestry concerns. What you will find is a concerted effort to tackle the compli-cated issues of water quality in Louisiana. Water quality problems didn’t develop overnight and solving them takes time.

(This article was published in the spring 2004 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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