Gulf of Mexico
Removing rocks used in the demolition of a small dam, known as a weir, from Bayou Lafourche in Thibodaux on April 21, 2021. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate) PHOTO BY CHRIS GRANGER

LA - 'We're in a fight for our lives': Ben Malbrough on a decade spent reviving Bayou Lafourche

Departing water manager leaves the 106-mile waterway cleaner, safer and more inviting

When Ben Malbrough began working to improve Bayou Lafourche 10 years ago, the once-scenic waterway was little more than an emaciated trickle. Dammed off from the Mississippi River long ago, the 106-mile-long bayou had become clogged with weeds and invaded by saltwater.

Hired as executive director of the Bayou Lafourche Fresh Water District in 2013, Malbrough has helped lead a stunning turnaround for the bayou. Several projects totaling more than $220 million are improving drinking water quality, boosting the health of coastal marshes and making the bayou an attraction for boaters and anglers.

Malbrough recently left the water district to work in as an executive for Galliano-based GIS Engineering. The Times-Picayune | The Advocate asked him to reflect on the work that went into one of Louisiana’s largest and most successful restoration projects. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What led you to the water district?

I grew up in lower Terrebonne Parish in what I like to say was the sprawling metropolis of Bourg, Louisiana. The coast is obviously near and dear to my heart. My family had a camp on Grand Isle and a camp off Timbalier Island. I grew up in the estuary, in the Gulf.

As a kid, I’d hear about land loss and flood protection, marsh creation and all of these buzzwords that have become part of our dictionary now. I realized we're in a fight for our lives.

I went off to LSU and pursued a degree in civil engineering with the understanding that my passion was on the coastal side rather than your traditional civil engineering fields like roads and bridges. When I finished in 2004, I went to work for the Shaw Group out of Baton Rouge. In 2013, I heard the water district wanted people to implement the Bayou Lafourche project, which had started to gain some momentum. It was an opportunity that I knew I couldn’t pass up.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you started?

The big issues were water quality, saltwater intrusion, and very aggressive invasive (weeds) that had essentially choked off probably 15 miles of the bayou. The fresh water district wasn't able to flush that slug of putrid water. Any additional flow would have caused drainage issues because the bayou was so choked down with vegetation.

We started implementing these projects, and they began to push back on some of the environmental issues we had with water quality and weeds.

The holy grail of the program is the pump station. Everything we were doing is contingent upon increasing the flow of water from the Mississippi. It will, first and foremost, protect the drinking water supply for almost 10% of the state's population. It will also utilize Bayou Lafourche as a conveyance channel for fresh water to combat saltwater intrusion, which is one of the leading contributors to land loss in an area that has some of the largest land loss rates on the globe.

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