Take a trip down the Vermilion River after a big rainfall and it can be discouraging. Beer bottles, Coke cans and empty cartons of cigarettes collect into berms of fallen tree branches. Significant strides have been made toward cleaning up the river since its worst days in the 1970s, but it’s an ongoing battle.
Several initiatives have shown promise, experts say, but major investments and more personal responsibility among locals are needed to make bigger improvements, a fact underscored by recent water quality findings.
“We are seeing improvement,” says Bess Foret, environmental quality manager at Lafayette Consolidated Government. “We’re actively trying to get people engaged because everyone’s actions on land, the non-point sources, have an effect on the river. It doesn’t have to be on the river.”
A non-point source is any discharge not directly piped into the river. Overflowing septic tanks, construction runoff, and chemical or trash dumping would be considered non-point sources. LCG, in partnership with Bayou Vermilion District, has worked to get septic systems along the river cleaned up.
In 2017, BVD began inspecting septic systems and advising their owners on what steps they need to take to maintain or upgrade them.
People have largely complied with the program. In 2021, 81% of the 601 septic systems the BVD inspected passed. When it began the program, 46% of those systems failed inspections.
Environmental scientist Whitney Broussard III believes Lafayette and Louisiana could make greater strides by tightening up regulations on septic systems.
Other states like Texas and Ohio require septic systems to be inspected regularly, and maintenance is not optional, says Broussard, who has a Ph.D. in coastal ecology and consults for the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District. In Louisiana, the law merely suggests that septic systems be inspected every six years and pumped every eight. Homeowners are only required to clean and fix their tanks when they sell their properties or if mortgage lenders require the upkeep of septic systems.
“It’s going to take investment; it’s expensive to [maintain septic systems],” Broussard says. “It’s going to take monitoring and oversight to make sure that everybody is on board.”
Fixing a septic system can come at a hefty cost, and low-income residents may find it difficult to justify the improvements, with the national average cost ranging from $300 to $600 to pump out a septic system. Fixing an aerator? That adds another $500 to $600. There are programs to help subsidize the cost of repair or completely cover the cost through the USDA and some state programs.
Beyond septic systems, LCG has also stepped up enforcement against illegal pollters. Through new reporting systems, it found 118 potential stormwater pollution sites and resolved all issues in collaboration with DEQ.
But the government cannot have its eyes everywhere, Foret says. Illegal dumping can happen when regulators aren’t watching.
“We do have the little fly-by-nights that discharge somewhere, and unfortunately that does happen but very much less than it used to,” Foret says. “I think we’re in a much better place to do something about it now.”
Read more on Bayou Vermilion
Nearly 40 years into an effort to clean up America’s most polluted river, Lafayette is rebuilding its relationship with Bayou Vermilion.
Organizations have worked to make the river cleaner. But how safe is the Vermilion? Well, when was the last time it rained?
Agricultural runoff has dropped significantly over the years as Lafayette urbanized, but pollutants from cows and fertilizer have been replaced by residential contaminants — like dog poop.
Properly disposing of pet waste can help reduce bacterial contamination in the river, the main water quality concern for the Vermilion right now. It’s not just an imperative for dog owners along the river. Wherever pet waste breaks down, it will eventually find its way to a storm drain. Picking it up is a minor inconvenience that can have a meaningful impact on the river’s health.
For those who do live along the river, adding native plants can help protect the river from upland pollution, says Lawrence Rozas of the Bayou Vermilion Preservation Association.
Native plants create a buffer zone between manmade waste and the waterway. Trash, dog waste and septic system leakages could be caught up or absorbed by these plants before they enter the water. Plants can even capture toxins from leaking septic tanks before they leech into the river.
The BVPA’s resilient landscape program is an educational program that helps residents understand native plants’ role in intercepting runoff and collecting nutrients from waste that would otherwise be detrimental to the river, Rozas says.
“If everyone would just do a little and convert some of their lawn that they have to native plant beds, that would go a long way to helping,” Rozas says.
Native plants could also help with agricultural runoff such as fertilizers and dirt. The plants lower the speed of running water, Rozas explains, allowing time for sediment and fertilizers to settle on the ground while also providing food for the plants. Fertilizers contribute to higher levels of nitrates and nitrites in the waterway, which can lead to algae blooms and choke out native marine plant life and wildlife.
Because so much of water quality depends on individual responsibility, education is vital, says Leigh Dupuy, who serves on the BVPA’s board and as environmental awareness director at BVD.
It may seem like a small gesture, but residents can do their part by cleaning up their own yards. Every bit counts. BVD collects 15,000 gallons of trash every year, Dupey says.
“You got to ask them, when it rains does the water stay in your yard forever?” Dupey says. “Do the ditches stay full forever? No, they drain into the river.”