Oil spill reaches Lake Pontchartrain

Anne Rheams saw them this week floating in the water, small and scattered and about the size of silver dollars. Some had washed up near boat docks, others near lakeside subdivisions — tar balls, most likely from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

They made their way to Lake Pontchartrain, the vast estuarine oval that hems New Orleans to the north — and defines the city’s character and destiny as much as the winding Mississippi River a few miles south.

By Tuesday, cleanup crews had collected more than 1,020 pounds of tar balls and waste from the lake and the Rigolets, the strait connecting Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne and the Gulf of Mexico.

It was a relatively small smudge for a 630-square-mile lake, and it will not pose a direct public health problem: New Orleans gets its drinking water from the Mississippi River.

But Rheams, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, described the occasion as a psychological blow for New Orleans. The city is more than 100 miles from the gulf, and while the worry and gloom of the catastrophe have penetrated the metropolitan area for months, there was no oil — until now.

“People love the lake, and they live around the lake,” Rheams said. “It’s really bringing this closer to home for our folks in the basin.”

Crews have put 600 feet of boom at a choke point in the Rigolets (pronounced RIG-oh-leez) to prevent more oil from making it to the lake, according to the oil spill response headquarters in New Orleans.

On Monday, more than 20 skimming and decontamination boats were working to clean it up. But on Tuesday, bad weather kept the boats docked, and workers had to try to skim the water from shore, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Kelly Parker.

In the gulf, rough seas again stymied the work of skimming boats and complicated an attempt to hook up a system of pipes that could more than double the roughly 25,000 barrels of oil being captured near the well site.

Rheams, whose group heads the effort to protect Lake Pontchartrain’s fragile ecosystem, was trying to be optimistic. She said she hoped that the oil in the lake would be more weathered, and thus less toxic, than the heavy goop in the gulf.

But it was difficult not to be disappointed, given the progress Rheams’ nonprofit and others have made on Lake Pontchartrain over the years. In 1962, “no swimming” signs were posted on the shoreline, and many New Orleanians didn’t need a sign to be convinced. The lake was enough of a mess to be a local joke, collecting raw sewage, urban runoff and other waste from a basin of more than 2 million people.

In the late 1970s, according to the foundation, the water quality became so bad that the state stopped taking samples.

With concern mounting, the Legislature formed the nonprofit foundation, which eventually applied enough public pressure to limit sewage pumping, stop oil and gas drilling, and halt harmful dredging for shells used as cheap paving material. Among other things, the dredge boats effectively strip-mined the lake bottom, killing bottom-dwelling creatures key to the food chain.

In a region where environmentalism often takes a back seat to economic pressures, Lake Pontchartrain was eventually restored — a place where humans, and animals, could swim again.

Rheams noted with pride that triathletes swim in the lake these days. Pelicans returned in the 1990s. According to the foundation, a herd of manatees was spotted in the lake in 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina — whose storm surge pushed Pontchartrain’s waters into the streets and over the rooftops of much of the city.

Now, like many others along the Gulf Coast, Rheams is wondering when, and whether, oil company BP is going to plug its well. During hurricane season, she said, the easterly and southeasterly winds from the gulf tend to blow what’s out in the open water through the Rigolets, and close to home.

“The concern we have long-term,” she said Tuesday, “is if this oil keeps coming.”