Monday, January 18, 2016

Monday, January 18, 2016

Local Organization Spotlight | Bayou Vermilion District

Tucked away on the banks of the Vermilion River next to Vermilionville in Lafayette is an old Acadian-style house that functions as the office for Bayou Vermilion District. The organization, funded by a parish-wide property tax millage, is run by a small group of passionate and dedicated men and women. They focus on beautifying, conserving and managing sites along the Vermilion River to ensure the preservation and enhancement of the natural and cultural resources for the citizens of Lafayette Parish.


One of their most intensive initiatives, and the one in which I was most interested in learning about, is the daily trash and debris management efforts. The operations crew, headed by Tom Melancon, heads out along the 30 miles of river under their control each morning and afternoon to pick trash and debris, like fallen trees, out of the river, along with cleaning out numerous trash booms in connected coulees.


I visited the Bayou Vermilion District one sunny Friday morning to learn about their cleanup work and take a ride to observe the cleanups in action. It's a trip I lovingly call the Vermilion River Garbage Cruise. After some coffee and a game plan, Tom, Grant, Chris, Spencer, and I hopped into three boats and set out to see what needed cleaning.


The Vermilion River is not instantly appealing, with its murky brown water, but it has an attraction to it once you're cruising along. Kayakers use the public launches to set out for some recreation, and fishing is possible (the fish are edible, Tom told me). Homes along the river have docks for access, and some have boats and party barges ready to go. Each year, BVD holds a boat parade that brings crowds to the river and its banks.


As we rode along, I couldn't help but be mesmerized by the homes. We traveled down to River Ranch before turning back, and I saw many different architectural styles, and most houses had beautiful walls of windows allowing for a view of the river that winds all the way through our city. It was refreshing to get a new view of such a familiar city: to see how Lafayette's different parts connect by river, instead of by road, and to pass under the bridges I drive across so frequently. Traveling down nature's path compared to man's path is much more fulfilling.


With all this beauty, the need to keep Bayou Vermilion clean is even more apparent. We rode past very primitive-looking, undeveloped areas, but even they weren't free of a styrofoam cup, empty bottle of liquor, decomposing pumpkin, or deflated soccer ball.




It's not that people traipse out into the woods to dump these items, but rather, it shows the trail that trash follows, and would continue to follow if it weren't for guys like the BVD operations crew. We passed many large pipes - the ones that carry water from storm drains along the streets of Lafayette and empty out into the river. Trash and litter along the streets of Lafayette follow this same path. If left alone, that litter would float all the way down the Vermilion out of Lafayette, through Abbeville, and eventually all the way into the Gulf of Mexico.


Why is all this trash so bad?
  • Harmful to the wildlife along the river.
  • Harmful and dangerous to the banks along the river, whether someone's private backyard, a public access point, or quiet undeveloped spot of land.
  • Detrimental to the river's water quality.

BVD operates a series of trash booms that span the width of the river or coulee and sink a few feet. The booms collect and block litter from flowing further, and the operations crew heads out to manually pick the litter out of the water and into bins. There's one Bandalong litter trap, in Coulee Mine just off South College Road, where the litter is collected and funneled into a basket that can be lifted into a truck on land, reducing the need for manual collection.


Tom says their busiest days are the ones right after it's rained. As for what they find? "You name it, it's been in the river," Tom says. From school backpacks to emptied safes to guns, he's seen it all in the almost 10 years he's been with BVD. But for the most part, the majority of the litter is single-use items: styrofoam cups, soft drink bottles and cans, and fast food containers. They've also picked up furniture, mattresses, electronics and tires. Get the stats on how much trash and debris the group has picked up each year.

In addition to trash, the crew works to clear fallen trees or other natural debris, as they can pose a barrier to safe boat travel. Depending on the water level, tree branches can be hidden threats.

For everything BVD does, Tom says, "It's still four people against the city." He clarifies that it's not that everyone in Lafayette litters, but I agree that it's more than four people doing the littering. It will always be an uphill battle, and there will unfortunately always be litter in the river. We talked about how we hope people will start to take more pride in our city, and put more effort into keeping our streets and waterways clean.


But for Tom, this is more than just a job; more than just cleaning up litter. He is clearly passionate not only about Bayou Vermilion, but about the environment as a whole. He agrees that it's not a glamorous job, but he loves getting to be out on the river instead of being indoors all the time. The crew goes out year-round, except for in inclement weather and when the river is above flood stage. As for seasons, Tom enjoys summer the most, but we agree this mild and partly sunny January Friday made for a gorgeous ride.

Once back on shore, the crew empties their bins into a set of dumpsters near the office. The group recycles what they can, and there are special collection areas for motor oil. Tom shows me one of the many ice chests they've picked up, and shows me a metal boat that's been cut into pieces and stuffed into the dumpster. There's no limit to what they will clean out of the river.



In addition to the trash and debris management, Bayou Vermilion District works on studying and maintaining water quality, educating students and residents, and maintaining public boat and canoe launches. They oversee some 30-miles of Bayou Vermilion, spanning the entire parish.

Once we get back to our starting point at the BVD office, the group breaks for lunch, usually heading to La Cuisine de Maman at neighboring Vermilionville, before heading back to the office and back out on the river for more cleaning.

It's my time to head out, but I leave with a newfound appreciation for my city, my fight against litter and the employees of Bayou Vermilion District (and employees/volunteers of other similar organizations).

Bayou Vermilion is both the heart of and main artery through Lafayette. When people litter, it directly impacts our flagship waterway and everything connected to it - coulees, private backyards, public access points, wildlife and the land surrounding it.


We show our pride for Lafayette and Acadiana in so many ways. Let's make preservation of Bayou Vermilion one of those ways. Take care not to litter, and keep our river clean.

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