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Gulf oil spill's tar balls latest trouble for Lake Pontchartrain

Tar balls from the Gulf oil spill were first spotted entering New Orleans' Lake Pontchartrain on Sunday, and have disrupted the lake's rebounding fishing industry.

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While St. Tammany Parish enjoys the longest coastline on Lake Pontchartrain and has taken the lead with oil containment, neighboring Orleans Parish – home to New Orleans – has the longest history with the lake. The city was founded on its spot along the Mississippi River because the nearby lake offered an outlet into the Gulf of Mexico. In the first half of the 20th century, the southern shore of Lake Pontchartain became a playground for New Orleans, with beaches, lakeside restaurants, and an amusement park located adjacent to the spot where the campus of the University of New Orleans now stands.

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By the 1970s, however, the lake was in crisis, its water quality plunging due to industrial clamshell dredging and wastewater runoff from bordering municipalities and farms. The lake started a comeback in the 1980s, beginning with the creation the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, a state-funded nonprofit that patterned itself after the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Shell dredging and oil drilling on the lake were banned. Federal and state grants helped build new water treatment and sewage systems upstream.

“It was a dramatic turnabout, and the lake has continued to get healthier over the years,” says Lopez.

Fish stocks in the lake have rebounded over the past decade, with record trout caught this season in eastern portions of the lake that were closed to fishing this week, says Chris Schieble, a director of research for the University of New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Science. “It was one of the last bastions for fishing that hadn’t been closed yet because of the oil,” said Mr. Schieble, who studies the lake’s fish populations as director of the institute’s Nekton Laboratory. “Overall, the health of the lake keeps trending upward, but we keep having setbacks from what could be called catastrophic events.”

In 1998, hurricane Georges pushed large amounts of salt water into the lake, damaging plant and animal life. Hurricane Katrina did the same in 2005, then waste waters from New Orleans were pumped in by the US Army Corps of Engineers after the levee failures. The BP oil spill is just the latest challenge.

“If a large amount of oil gets into the lake now, that could be just as damaging as the clamshell dredging had been,” Schieble said. “The worst-case scenario could be a slow, weak hurricane or even a tropical storm coming in just west of the lake. It would push in a lot of oil, and in particular would cover all the marshes on the lake's east side with oil. That would be devastating.”