The wetlands of Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas: past, present and future.
One of the largest wetlands along the Gulf Coast of North America (ca. 150 000 ha) occurs around the shorelines of Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas in southeastern Louisiana, just north and west of New Orleans. We provide an introduction to the environmental history of the marshes and swamps in the upper Lake Pontchartrain basin, a review of the existing vegetation patterns and their possible causes, and a discussion of restoration targets and priorities. The Mississippi River produced the St. Bernard Delta 3000-4000 years ago, trapping fresh water to produce both Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain (Frazier 1967). The natural vegetation of much of the region remains fresh or brackish marshes, mixed with swamps dominated by bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and tupelo (Nyssa aquatica). Yearly flooding by the Mississippi River was once a major factor controlling vegetation patterns, but these processes have been greatly impaired by the construction of artificial levees for flood control. Humans also removed most of the cypress swamps in a pulse of logging between 1876 and 1956. Continued subsidence of the land, slowly rising sea levels, salinity pulses from hurricanes, and canals from the Gulf of Mexico, add further stress to these wetlands. Over the past century there has been a steady loss of wetland area, and a gradual conversion of fresh water to salt water vegetation types. Biotic processes are also important. An exotic species of mammal, nutria (Myocastor coypus), consumes both aboveground and belowground parts of wetland plants. Reforestation is strictly limited by the combination of salt pulses, competition, and nutria. Alligators are the top predator in this system, but their potential for reducing the impacts of nutria has received minimal attention from biologists. There are many potential future states for this ecosystem. In the extreme case of rising sea level and warmer climate, the area may become a salt and brackish embayment fringed with mangroves. The state closest to historical conditions would be large areas of bald cypress swamp. Two important priorities are to increase flow of freshwater into the system from multiple pulsed fresh water diversions, and to decrease saltwater intrusions by closing canals such as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.