Derek Frederick always looked forward to his father coming home from offshore. On warm summer nights and cold winter evenings, they would camp alongside the Vermilion River. His family kindled bonfires, and ate candy apples and barbecue. The best part? Swimming in the river.
“All the parents would sit on the deck and watch the kids swim,” says Frederick, now 54, reminiscing about eating at a riverside restaurant in Milton in the late 1970s. “We would go swimming in the Vermilion. A few of our dumb asses jumped off the bridge.”
They ate fish they caught in the river. That was common back then, Frederick says. People used the river for boating and jet skiing, fishing, camping and even transportation to other destinations upstream.
The river was clean, Frederick says, compared to what it became.
Frederick’s memory may be a bit too rosy. In 1976, while he was swimming in the river, it was designated the most-polluted river in the United States. That reputation lasted through much of the second half of the 20th century. Like a generation or more of Lafayette residents, Frederick stopped using the river for recreation.
“The last time me and the guys decided to go swimming [in 1980], we saw a dead cow floating by and we said, ‘Nah.’ That was the last time,” recalls Frederick.
But the river is much safer now — although not quite safe enough to swim in — in large part because of a concerted community effort to address the pollution.
Lafayette has made strides. Today, the water is much cleaner. Boat parades and recreation are more common. Homes have sprouted along the river’s banks. Still, public perception remains a challenge that has stymied visions of a river walk.
The river’s image has been hard to clean up, a stench that lingers in the mind of people like Derek Frederick.
“The stigma is hard to get away from,” Frederick says. “To me, no matter what the Bayou Vermilion District does to the river, it’s still gonna be nasty.”
The most polluted river in America
Public perception of the river is understandable. For years, stagnant and filthy river water wafted a stench along its banks, eventually finding its way to Bob Cole’s nose in 1972. Cole would go on to help found the Bayou Vermilion District, an agency that would play a big role in improving the river’s water quality.
“It became very evident that the river that divided this city in half was very polluted,” Cole says. “I couldn’t figure out how they let something like that go.”
Widespread pollution in urban rivers was common in the 20th century. And Lafayette was no different.
Before the era of environmental protection, residents and industry in a growing Lafayette dumped indiscriminately into the river. Untreated sewage and runoff from farming seeped into the waterway.
Cole retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1969 and found his way back to Lafayette, later rising to become president of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce. By the early 1980s, he felt something needed to be done to address the pollution in the river. He helped spearhead the creation of the Bayou Vermilion District.
Cole’s vision for BVD was inspired by the San Antonio River Walk, today a massive tourist attraction for the Texas city. For Cole, the end goal of BVD was to recreate on the Vermilion what San Antonio built along the San Antonio River: an economic powerhouse and tourism destination.
To get there, Lafayette needed to clean up its act. BVD gave the city a vehicle to do that. Before BVD, there was little to prevent rampant dumping. Storm drains collected trash and shot it downstream to the river.
“There were no controls whatsoever,” Cole says. “Cattle would drown in the river and the bodies would just rot in the river. People pushed abandoned cars into the river. It was just a cesspool.”
BVD immediately stepped into the regulatory role, policing what drained into the river and manning pickup operations that round up litter and other debris.
The stagnant water problem was solved by the time BVD came about, according to Cole. The Teche Vermilion Fresh Water District, created in 1982, operates pumps to move fresh water into the Vermilion allowing the river to flow as it would otherwise. Restoring the current helped move pollutants downriver, too.
By the early 2000s, BVD’s operations were expanded with a new property tax. Today, that tax generates around $1.8 million to fund water testing, clean-up operations, bank stabilization and more.
Nearly 40 years later, Bayou Vermilion doesn’t yet rival the bustle of the San Antonio River Walk — most of the Vermilion is lined by private property — but BVD itself has expanded to promote tourism directly. It now hosts a living history museum, Vermilionville, that teaches residents and tourists about the lives of those who first inhabited and later settlers of the lands of the bayou.
“If we would have never done anything, the value of the real estate on the river would be depressed tremendously,” Cole says. “You couldn’t [build expensive homes] if the river was full of trash and garbage and smelled bad.”
Cole has long stepped away from BVD, and since his departure, the agency has grown significantly and more recently finding itself at the center of controversy.
Several commissioners resigned in 2020 after Vermilionville staff moved to release a statement committing to inclusive programming in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the wave of protests that followed.
The clash sparked major changes. In 2021, BVD cut ties with the Vermilionville Living History Museum Foundation, the museum’s nonprofit arm, which had vocally supported staff on the Floyd statement.
The district has been without an executive director since November 2021, after longtime CEO David Cheramie resigned under pressure from BVD commissioners. Cheramie declined to comment for this story.
New commissioners, among them current commission chair David Eaton, have since sought to trim BVD’s budget and focus the agency on bayou operations.
All along, the district has continued to play a big role in cleaning up the river. It may not be a cesspool now, but water quality remains a challenge.
The river has high concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria and has low levels of dissolved oxygen, according to the most recent tests performed by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Fecal coliform comes in part from manure running off farms north of the river’s headwaters and from poorly managed septic systems.
Emile Ancelet, former head of water quality at BVD, says there’s room for improvement. The water isn’t suitable for swimming, and he advises against boating and other indirect contacts at the river’s headwaters. BVD has done remarkable work with respect to the Sisyphean task of litter mitigation and septic system maintenance, he says, arguing more should be done to improve water quality before turning BVD’s budget to river development.
While the river may not be up to snuff yet, DEQ says that BVD is taking the appropriate steps to clean up the river and has shown slow but positive improvements to water quality such as litter pickup and septic system maintenance for shoreline properties.
In 2017, BVD began to inspect the septic systems of residents along the river and advise them on what steps they need to take to maintain or upgrade them. The Home Sewer System Inspections program has been so successful that they hope to expand the program to the entire parish, Eaton says.
“Most of it is people that aren’t knowledgeable, they buy a home, and they have a septic system there and they don’t know what it takes to maintain it,” Eaton says.
People are complying with the program. In 2021, 81% of the 601 septic systems the BVD inspected passed. When it began the program, 46% of residents along the river had a failing system; by 2021 that number dropped to 26%.
For all that work cleaning up the water, repairing its image has proven to be an enduring challenge, too.
Jesse Guidry, vice president of communications of Lafayette Travel and former director of marketing and public relations at BVD, has worked to improve public perception of the river. Lafayette grew away from the river, unlike other riverine cities, and that made it out of sight, out of mind.
“When you turn your back from something, it’s going to have that perception,” Guidry says.
He says the main reason some may have a negative perception of the river is that they haven’t been on the river in years — or ever. So, he decided to get people on the water to challenge those ideas.
“The biggest problem with people’s perception of the river, my response is, ‘When was the last time you got on it? When was the last time you paddled?’ The usual response is never,” Guidry says.
So he set about getting people in the river. He launched boat parades. More and more residents within and around the city now bring their canoes and kayaks and take a trip down the river, creating a firsthand experience of what the waterway has to offer. BVD also offers canoe and kayak rentals for residents to hop on the river trail.
Guidry frequently kayaks the river himself. When he started, he rarely saw anyone on the river; now he sees up to 10 people every time he paddles.
The feedback he received from the first year was tremendous, he says. Fellow paddlers were unaware of the beauty of the river. Negative impressions shattered. Quickly, residents began to connect the importance of the river to the growth and future of Lafayette.
“I don’t blame people for imposed perceptions of a thing,” he says. “I will hold people accountable for not challenging those perceptions.”
As Lafayette nears a half century in its effort to clean up the river, more projects to come will challenge the public’s perception of Bayou Vermilion. Stephen Ortego, the architect behind a plan to redevelop the former Trappey’s cannery across from Beaver Park, cites a familiar model in explaining his vision of what could be.
“Where do I start? It’s a pretty big project,” Ortego laughs. “One project that’s similar in size and scope on the river… is this area called the Pearl District in San Antonio.”
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