The Vermilion River is a significant geographical landmark to residents of south-central Louisiana and to the city of Lafayette. Members of Lafayette’s older generations have recollections of afternoons on the river, swimming, fishing, and enjoying Louisiana’s spring and summer months. By the 1950s and 1960s, however, memories of this sort become scarce due to the Vermilion River’s extensive pollution problems.
From trash and unregulated sewage dumping, to industry and farmland runoff, the river’s pollution problems continued to grow until the Vermilion River became one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. Currently, many of the river’s problems are under control and maintenance of the river has become a priority for residents of Lafayette. However, it took major pollution problems with fairly severe environmental consequences to open the city’s eyes to the importance of preserving its most significant waterway.
A History of Bayou Vermilion
The Vermilion River, or the Bayou Vermilion, is a 70-mile-long river in southern Louisiana. It is formed on the common boundary of Lafayette and St. Martin parishes by a confluence of small bayous flowing from St. Landry Parish, and courses generally southward through Lafayette and Vermilion parishes, past the cities of Lafayette and Abbeville. At the port of Intracoastal City, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway crosses the river before the latter flows into Vermilion Bay, which is an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico.
The original village, which would become Lafayette, was laid out by Jean Mouton and his surveyor, John Dinsmore, Jr., in 1821 and was given the name “St. Jean du Vermilionville,” as it was established on the banks of the Vermilion River. Later, the name would be shortened to “Vermilionville.” The boundaries were clearly defined in an 1836 charter and later expanded in the 1869 charter.
In 1823, the Louisiana legislature divided St. Martin parish and created Lafayette Parish. The parish name “Lafayette” was chosen due to the enthusiasm of General Gilber du Motier Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to the United States. However, the city’s name remained Vermilionville for some time due to the fact that the name “Lafayette” was already given to a suburb of New Orleans. Eventually, the suburb was incorporated into New Orleans, and Vermilionville’s name was officially changed to Lafayette in 1884 (1).
In the early stage of Lafayette’s development, the only point in the city where water transportation could be secured was at the site of the Pinhook Bridge. As a result, property owners and businesses were located there. In later years, steamboats ran on the bayou. As a result, the river was used both recreationally–for fishing and entertainment–and commercially, to transport goods from one place to another. The importance of the Vermilion River as a means of transportation and commerce declined, however, with the introduction of the railroad and the paving of all highways leading into Lafayette beginning in 1936 (2).
Between 1940 and 1970, the city of Lafayette and the surrounding areas experienced a period of rapid population growth. Between 1940 and 1970, the population of Lafayette grew by 75 percent. Similarly, the city of Abbeville was twice as populated by 1970 as it was in 1940. One staggering result of such rapid population growth was an increase of pollution in the area. As industry in the area grew, and as residential subdivisions expanded, the amount of pollutants being dumped into the Vermilion River quickly became evident (3).
Recognizing Pollution in the Vermilion River
In 1966, Ronald Henry Kilgen, a graduate student at the University of Southwestern Louisiana pursuing a Master of Science, conducted a series of tests on the water quality of the Vermilion River and then compiled his findings in a thesis which exposed the excessive pollution of the river’s water.
Kilgen collected samples from ten different stations along the length of the river and tested the water for dissolved oxygen, chemical oxygen demand, chlorinity, alkalinity, pH, salinity, specific conductance, temperature, color, turbidity, and enumeration of coliform bacteria (4). The study indicated that the water near the river’s source was almost entirely free of pollutants. The greatest amount of pollution occurred at and below the city of Lafayette. It appeared that the river filtered itself upon nearing Vermilion Bay, but much of this could be attributed to dilution.
A combination of effluents, or liquid waste, was found to be contributing to the pollution of the river, including effluents from sewage treatment facilities, untreated sewage, industry, agricultural land drainage, barn-yard runoff, and waste from oil fields. The biggest problem of all was the staggering amount of sewage in the water, both treated and untreated, which rendered the water unsafe to even swim in. The salinity of the river was far too high to be used as irrigation for rice fields, and the water’s condition was less than optimal for the support of aquatic life and aquatic habitats (5).
In August of 1969, a Vermilion River Sanitary Survey was released, which recorded extensive information on the various industrial establishments along the river and their contribution to its pollution problems. Among these establishments were: food processing plants, packing plants, oil mills, sugar mills, municipal treatment facilities, slaughterhouses and dairy farms (6). The survey’s results confirmed the early findings of Ronald Kilgen. At this time, it was concluded that the water quality of the Vermilion River was below acceptable standards for domestic and industrial water supply or even recreational use (7). The survey closed with a list of suggestions for improvement, which focused heavily on stricter regulation of treatment facilities and slaughterhouses (8).
This new environmental movement was sweeping the nation, as seen in Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, released in 1962, about the devastating effects of DDT as well as the implementation of Earth Day in 1970 (9). In 1976, Neil Martin Nehbras, director of Lafayette Lagniappe, wrote an article in celebration of Vermilion River Day, a gathering sponsored by the Council on the Environment. His description of the river on Sunday, June 6th, 1976, included several sentences discussing the large amount of trash in the river including plastic bottles, aluminum beer cans, and the like. The celebration was held to boost awareness of the river’s extensive pollution problems.
According to Nehbras, many people were in attendance in 1976 (10). The large crowd that gathered in June of 1976 was not enough to reverse the pollution of the river, however, it did draw enough attention to the river that later that same year the Vermilion River was named the most grossly polluted river in the United States (11).
East Broussard Bridge and construction site along the river. Photo by Kimberly Kidder.
In response to this news, the Council on the Environment proposed its “Eight Year Plan,” which intended to reverse the sewage, riverbank, and flow problems of the river. The council’s hope was that their efforts would return the water quality of the river to above acceptable standards by the year 1983. This plan included expansion and improvement of industrial and municipal sewage treatment facilities, stricter enforcement of trash laws, stabilizing vegetation and better farming practices. It also included the Teche Vermilion Water Diversion Project, whose goal was to improve the river’s flow and prevent the intake of salt water into the river near Vermilion Bay (12).
In 1977, Charley Hutchens, executive director of the Council on the Environment, wrote an article entitled, “Vermilion Bayou and the Southside Sewage Plant,” which exposed the City of Lafayette Southside Sewage Treatment Plant’s inability to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulations of waste treatment and disposal. It seemed that even with the problem of pollution and the proposed 8-year plan so fresh in everyone’s minds, proper steps were not being taken, especially not by those most responsible for the river’s problems. Plants continued to ignore mandated regulations, and effluent levels remained far too high for industrial, domestic, or recreational use of the water (13).
The United States Geological Survey furthered this concern through their study of the river in the spring of 1980 when they exposed many continuing pollution problems. They tested water samples from five locations four different times “for inorganics, nutrients, pesticides, and phytoplankton” (14). The level of trace metals found in the water was within a safe range, but there was a disturbingly large amount of fecal matter, pesticides, and oil and grease found in the samples. The study emphasized that one of the contributing factors for the pollution of the river was “the slow-flowing nature of the river” (15). At some points during the sampling, the river was so still that it behaved more like a lake. This was a problem that was about to change.
In 1969, lawmakers created the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District, an organization that would control and encourage the supply of freshwater into both the Vermilion River and the Bayou Teche (16). Several years later in 1983, the District created the Teche-Vermilion Freshwater Project to bring fresh water into the Vermilion in order to keep it steadily flowing.
The project included using pumps to bring in water that would continue to be monitored by the district up to the present day. As theorized, movement of water helps polluted rivers by eliminating the opportunity for pollutants to stop and settle in one place. By improving the quality of the water, this project makes it safer for irrigation and industrial uses.
A report from 1992 shows that in the decade since the implementation of the Teche-Vermilion Freshwater Project, the flow of the river has increased as well as the amount of dissolved oxygen, both positive outcomes (17).By 2003, many of the river’s pollution problems had been reversed, but people still wanted to restore the river’s ecosystem to what it once was and to make the river more accessible to the public.
One of the major issues still on the agenda was that swimming in the Vermilion River was still not advised. In November of 2003, Lafayette voters approved a property tax that would be used to fund a wide range of projects on the Vermilion River, from continued pollution monitoring, to beautification of the river’s banks. Kerry Collins, executive director of the Bayou Vermilion District, said that the goal of the tax was to transform the river into something that everyone in Lafayette could enjoy. At this time, residents of Lafayette and the surrounding areas were hopeful that the projects would continue to be successful (18).
In 2004, 14-year old Boy Scout, John Cairns, started a campaign to raise awareness about storm drain pollution in Lafayette. His project, which was created to alert people of the dangers of dumping used automotive oil, soapy water, antifreeze, old paint, cigarette butts, cooking grease and pesticides in storm drains, began as a small scale project only in his neighborhood. He was encouraged by his scout master to branch out further into the community.
Soon, Cairns, with the help of the Bayou Vermilion District, was on a mission to place blue and green medallions, which read, “No Dumping, Drains to Bayou,” on every storm drain in Lafayette. Some people did not realize that storm drains connected to the Vermilion River, and Cairns hoped that his project would help raise awareness about pollution problems and prevent further pollution from happening (19).
The League of Women Voters of Lafayette was another group to take a stand against Vermilion River pollution. In 2013 they hosted a public forum stressing the importance of correct disposal of waste. Bess Foret, who is the compliance supervisor for Lafayette Consolidated Government states, “Everything that goes down the storm drain goes directly into the waterway[
]what you’re putting down might be far away from the Vermilion River, but the way our waterways work, it will end up there.” Forum participants also discussed Bayou Vermilion District’s role in pollution clean up and a desire to see the river used more frequently for recreational pursuits (20).
The Vermilion River: Today & the Future
Today, pollution problems remain under control, and further maintenance and beautification projects are in the works. Many businesses and organizations have projects in place devoted to the preservation of the Vermilion River.
The Bayou Vermilion District updates its website regularly with tips and ideas to lessen pollution in Lafayette. Without the continuous efforts of the Bayou Vermilion District, pollution of the river would be extremely noticeable. The district “regularly removes between 90 and 150 barrels (55 gal barrels) of floating debris per week from Bayou Vermilion and its tributaries in Lafayette Parish.” It also removes large items as well, such as tires, furniture, and appliances (21). Along with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the Lafayette consolidated government, they are hoping to implement a plan that will prevent polluted run-off water from entering the river.
In an attempt to educate the residents and businesses along the river, the Bayou Vermilion District released information about the benefits of rain barrels, which help prevent pollutants from reaching the river after major storms. Vermilionville and other establishments dedicated to cultural preservation now encourage canoeing and kayaking on the river, and pastimes such as these are slowly gaining popularity.
Though the water quality of the Vermilion River and its ecosystems are on the road to improvement, there is still more that can be done to restore this river to its former condition. The preservation of the Vermilion River is a daily effort that requires the support and participation of all residents of Lafayette. This is our river, and it is up to us to keep it safe, clean, and beautiful (22).
- Harry Lewis Griffin, The Attakapass Country: A History of Lafayette Parish Louisiana (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, Inc., 1959.
- “Vermilion Watershed,” United States Environmental Protection Agency, Posted on March 10, 2014, http://cfpub.epa.gov/surf/huc.cfm?huc_code=08080103.
- Vermilion River Sanitary Survey (Louisiana: Division of Engineering Louisiana State Department of Health, Division of Water Pollution Control Louisiana State Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, 1969) 2.
- Ronald Henry Kilgen, Industrial and Sewage Pollution in the Vermilion River Near Lafayette, Louisiana (Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1966) 11.
- Ronald Henry Kilgen, Industrial and Sewage Pollution in the Vermilion River Near Lafayette, Louisiana (Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1966) 97-100.
- Vermilion River Sanitary Survey (Louisiana: Division of Engineering Louisiana State Department of Health and Division of Water Pollution Control Louisiana State Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, 1969) 10-13.
- Vermilion River Sanitary Survey (Louisiana: Division of Engineering Louisiana State Department of Health, Division of Water Pollution Control Louisiana State Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, 1969) 24.
- Vermilion River Sanitary Survey (Louisiana: Division of Engineering Louisiana State Department of Health, Division of Water Pollution Control Louisiana State Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, 1969) 29-31.
- “The Story of Silent Spring,” National Resources Defense Council, Posted on December 5, 2013, http://www.nrdc.org/health/pesticides/hcarson.asp.
- Neil Martin Nehrbass, Vermilion River Day- 1976 (Lafayette, Lousiana: Council on Environment, 1976) 2.
- “Assertion on Vermilion is Repeated By Whitney,” The Advertiser, August 18, 1976: 3.
- Charley Hutchens, Bayou Vermilion- An Eight Year Plan (Lafayette, Louisiana: Council on the Environment, 1976).
- Charley Hutchens, Vermilion Bayou and the Southside Sewage Plant (Lafayette, Louisiana: Council on Environment, 1976).
- Dennis K. Demcheck and Harold L. Leone, Jr., Water Quality of the Upper Vermilion River, Louisiana, April-August 1980 (Louisiana: U.S. Geological Survey, 1980) 3.
- Dennis K. Demcheck and Harold L. Leone, Jr., Water Quality of the Upper Vermilion River, Louisiana, April-August 1980 (Louisiana: U.S. Geological Survey, 1980) 25.
- Broussard, Poché, Lewis, & Breaux, L.L.P., Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District Financial Report (Louisiana: Broussard, Poché, Lewis, & Breaux, L.L.P., 2011) 18.
- Michael G. Waldon and Paul A. Richards, Water Quality Improvement in the Vermilion River, Louisiana (Louisiana: Center for Louisiana Inland Water Studies, 1992) 4, 8.
- Richard Burgess, “Tax to Benefit River Projects Gets Approval,” The Advertiser, November 16, 2003: 5A.
- Richard Burgess, “Drain Markers Aimed At Cleaning River,” The Advertiser, September 27, 2004: 3C.
- Nicholas Persac, “Protect Water Supply, Forum Participants Told,” The Advertiser. February 20, 2013: 7A.
- “Trash/Debris Management,” Bayou Vermilion District, http://www.bayouvermiliondistrict.org/bayou-vermilion-district/operations/trash-debris-management.html.
- “Water Quality Management,” Bayou Vermilion District, http://www.bayouvermiliondistrict.org/bayou-vermilion-district/operations/water-quality.html
This article was originally researched and published on April 15, 2014. It has been edited for clarity.