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Lake Pontchartrain technically isn't a lake at all. In scientific circles, it's referred to as an estuary. That's really just a fancy way to say that it's a coastal body of water that either has an open connection, or is somehow connected to a sea. Lake Pontchartrain is bound by land, but one side is a marsh, which connects it to the Gulf of Mexico. It is considered a salt lake, though on the Northern edge of the lake, the levels of salinity barely register where rivers flow into the lake. The salinity levels increase as one travels in the direction of the Gulf - the highest levels are about half that of the sea water in the Gulf. Because it is connected to the Gulf, there are tidal changes daily.
A nearby fresh water lake, Lake Mauripas, is connected to the west side of Lake Pontchartrain by way of Pass Manchac. In addition, the Mississippi River taps into the Lake through the Industrial Canal at New Orleans. Besides the Ole Miss, there are five other rivers and two bayous that supply fresh water to the lake. The rivers are Tchefuncte, Tickfaw, Amite, Bogue Falaya and Tangipahoa; the Bayous are Chinchuba and Lacombe.
The Flood Control Act of 1965 authorized construction of the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project after Hurricane Betsey damaged New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers designed and constructed the levees that we see today. The local parishes of Jefferson, St. Charles, Orleans and St. Bernard are responsible for their individual sections of the barrier system - both the maintenance and flood control. When the levees were built, the heights were dependent on the terrain of the local area. Heights varied from 9.3 feet to 13.5 feet.
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August of 2005, those levees met their match. Water breached many levees, and some actually collapsed. As the natural northern barrier for the city of New Orleans, the lake bore the brunt of the blame for the floods after Hurricane Katrina. As the waters were subsiding, the city pumped most of its sludge back into the lake, because most officials agreed that the incoming fresh water and outgoing water to the Gulf would quickly dilute it and remedy the problem. For the most part, the toxicity of the lake did leave quickly, but some people believe it will take many years before the lake truly recovers from the sewage and other harmful pollutants.
After this catastrophe, the levee system was re-evaluated, and the Army Corps of Engineers began reconstruction. New pumps were installed, and levees were rebuilt. Those that withstood the onslaught were reinforced, and thus far, it's been enough to protect the city and Lake Pontchartrain behind it.
In the late 1980's, Lake Pontchartrain and surrounding waterways were deemed too polluted for use. In the 15 years that followed, huge steps were taken to clean up the estuary and make it safe to swim and fish. These days, locals wouldn't refer to Lake Pontchartrain as anything but a lake. Sailors, boaters, jet skiers and water skiers have plenty of room to have their own brand of fun because, though it is rather shallow, Lake Pontchartrain is the second largest salt water lake in the United States. Swimming and fishing are also allowed in the lake, though it is preferred that you don't take every fish you catch. In 2000, an artificial reef program began development of three artificial reefs in the lake to restore wildlife and improve recreational fishing. The reefs are thriving, and everyone who uses the lake is asked to be mindful of them.
There are 26 boat launches in various locations around Lake Pontchartrain, and 18 of them are free to the public. Fish species that make the lake their home include speckled trout, white trout, sheepshead, and redfish, along with about 120 more varieties.
Other recreational activities in the area include the Audubon Zoo and the New Orleans Botanical Garden. The Audubon Zoo has an exceptional local exhibit, a re-creation of the Louisiana Bayou, as well as White Tigers, Sea Lions and many more exciting exhibits. The Botanical Gardens are contained within an amazing complex, complete with WPA-era buildings. Sadly, the Gardens suffered a lot of damage during Hurricane Katrina, and are just now recovering the glory of their collection. Parks in the area include Fontainebleau State Park, the Fort Pike State Historic Site, Fairview-Riverside State Park, Bayou-Segnette State Park, and St. Bernard State Park. All of these beautiful parks have their own unique perspective on the Lake and its history.
Lake Pontchartrain is also famous for its causeway bridge. The toll bridge spans the width of the huge lake, and until recently, it was the longest bridge in the world. At 24 miles, the bridge is topped only by the 33 mile long Bang Na Expressway in Thailand.
Lake Pontchartrain is the largest body of water in Louisiana, and more importantly in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin. The Basin covers the 4700 square mile watershed surrounding Lake Pontchartrain and the other nearby lakes. Within this basin are roughly 2.1 million people, wildlife, forestry, and many other considerations that need to be taken into consideration when deciding how to handle water and land conservation.
Geologically, Lake Pontchartrain and the surrounding area are relatively new. At the end of the last Ice Age, this area was dry. Roughly 5,000 years ago, the lakes began forming, turning this estuary into the last barrier before the Gulf of Mexico. In terms of population, it is one of the most densely populated places in the United States, and as such, disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have lasting effects on the people and the lakes of the area.
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