A 'little slice of heaven in our own backyard': Lower 9th Ward celebrates wetland park

Recently, a group of Lower 9th Ward residents met to celebrate a hopeful green dot of progress they’ve helped to create in a neglected corner of their neighborhood.

Dotted with ponds, paths and newly planted trees, shrubs and flowers, the 1.5-acre Sankofa Wetland Park was designed by resident Diane Jones, a landscape architect, as a pilot section of a hoped-for mile-long linear park along Florida Avenue.

“It’s our little slice of heaven in our own backyard,” said Mary Fontenot Smith, one of the residents who spearheaded the project, which was developed by the Sankofa Community Development Corp. in consultation with wetlands ecologists and landscape architects.

The park’s construction was financed by a $100,000 grant from the Sewerage & Water Board as an investment in “green infrastructure” that’s required under a 1998 consent decree the agency reached with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over unauthorized sewage discharges into the river, lake and city canals.

The Sankofa Wetland Park has an estimated water capacity of 13,000 gallons. Through ponds as deep as four feet in some places, it will help to hold excess rainwater, helping to prevent both flooding and land subsidence, which happens when soil dries and shrinks.

Neighbors envision the park as the first step toward a 42-acre natural trail and wetland park that would span the length of the Lower 9th Ward, from the Industrial Canal to St. Bernard Parish, in the 100-foot-wide corridor between Florida Avenue and the railway line that parallels it.

The city owns the corridor under a long-term lease with the Sewerage & Water Board.

“It’s going to happen,” said Gary Shaffer, a biology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University who co-designed the park and works as an adviser on wetlands restoration policy. “If we do it three to 10 acres at a time, we can do it in 10 years.”

On the other side of the railway is the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle, a former cypress swamp that became open water dotted with cypress stumps after saltwater entered the wetland from the now-closed Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.

“I want to see cypresses towering there again,” said Fontenot Smith, a lifelong neighborhood resident who can see a “canopy of green” when she recalls the Bayou Bienvenue of her childhood.

“We used to come back here to fish and crab,” she said as she stood in the new park. “We’d make a day of it. It was so beautiful.”

The neighbors have been especially focused on getting children involved in the park. “Kids now spend too much time indoors. They don’t get to see things happen naturally,” longtime neighborhood leader Vanessa Gueringer said. “I want them to see an egret fishing for dinner. To see ants building an ant pile. To be out with a fishing rod, being one with nature.”

“I think the space has a lot of potential to be a great area for kids in the neighborhood, for schools and families, to have a nice place to go and enjoy nature. To watch the birds, hearing the bees buzzing around,” said Tricia LeBlanc, director of education at the Audubon Nature Institute, who has been working with Sankofa to create a curriculum for teachers.

LeBlanc can envision its ponds being used with younger students: “We could do some dip-netting for water insects and small fish and ask, ‘What else is living in the water that’s important?’ ”

Students of all ages could also learn how the space is “a sponge for storm surge or rain and how that protects the surrounding community,” LeBlanc said.

One of the first schools likely to incorporate the park into its science curriculum is the nearby Dr. King Charter School.

Assistant Principal Joe Recasner remembers going to that area as a boy. “People didn’t have the money to run to the store and buy candy,” he said. “So after we played ball, we would go back there to pick some of the fruit, the mulberries and misbeliefs.”

“It was a green space, a fruitful kind of area. It allowed for exploration,” Recasner recalled. “So this feels like part of bringing the Lower 9 back to its glory days. It reminds us that nature is cyclical and that it can come back, with a little help.”

In this corner of the storm-ravaged Lower 9th Ward, neighbors still must deal with weed-choked lots, broken streets and entire blocks where only one or two houses are occupied post-Katrina. Against that backdrop, residents need a place where they can take a deep breath and relax.

So Gueringer walks over there to see egrets, eagles and blue herons. “And there are trains rolling by and, soon, ponds that you can fish in,” she said. “It’s perfect for our kids.”

There’s also a small alligator that slides down the bank and suns itself sometimes, said Rashida Ferdinand, the Sankofa CDC’s executive director, who oversaw efforts to remove 400 Chinese tallow trees and other invasive plants and to replace them with native trees like bald cypress and water tupelo.

The site’s new trees and plants are expected to grow quickly, because they will be nurtured with disinfected but nutrient-rich wastewater that is “treated” in the park as part of the city’s water-treatment process.

Though the wastewater in the wetland did come from toilets, it’s been treated and disinfected. “It’s clear; it doesn’t even smell," Shaffer said. “It’s essentially water with fertilizer in it.” 

“Wetlands (complete the treatment) for free,” he said, noting that a similar swamp in Breaux Bridge has treated this level of wastewater for a half-century and others are being built across the state. Levels of phosphorus and nitrogen are monitored, to ensure that no harm is done to the area.

Trees that Shaffer helped to plant in 2008 in a similar wetland in Hammond are now more than 30 feet tall.

That provides a different layer of protection for the Lower 9th Ward, said Shaffer, whose research showed that the neighborhood would have experienced 80 percent less flooding if water from the MRGO had not killed so much nearby swamp.

So, although he likes to think of the linear park as being used by walkers and kayakers, he also thinks of its benefits during hurricane season. “We’ll be putting in 42 acres of surge protection,” Shaffer said.

Gueringer is pushing hard for the larger park. “Because it is a catalyst,” she said. “For us in the Lower 9th Ward, it is a key piece of the puzzle.”