By Luke Carothers

Located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the University Lakes are nearly 100 years old. These six man-made lakes were hand dredged by Civilian Conservation Corps workers to a depth of three feet. Changing the Tupelo swamp into a lake system required a large number of workers, but, upon completion, the University Lakes soon became an iconic recreation amenity for the City of Baton Rouge. Because of the area’s attractiveness, neighborhoods began to spring up around University Lakes. However, as development around the lakes increased, the amount of stormwater runoff into the system increased. Over its near century of existence, the lake system has had numerous issues with water quality. Decreased water quality had also resulted in additional complications with eutrophication. These challenges forced the residents of Baton Rouge to start thinking about the future of University Lakes, and a master plan was developed in 2016. This plan explored additional dredging on the lake system and how that dredge could be utilized as an additional recreational amenity. 

The result was a plan to dredge the entire lake system to a minimum of six feet in depth, doubling the current average depth. This additional dredge material would be utilized around the lakes’ edges to create a “living edge” to capture clean water before it goes back into the lakes, stabilize the lake edges, and provide new recreational amenities. In 2021, Sasaki was hired to lead the design from concept all the way to implementation. For the University Lakes project, Sasaki is leading the landscape design as well as being the master designer and lead for the upland civil work on the project. Sasaki is also partnering with Stantec, who is the flood risk reduction designer. 

According to Zach Chrisco, the University Lakes project is fascinating from a civil engineering perspective. Chrisco, a principal and civil engineer at Sasaki, notes the importance of the project in improving water quality for not only the six lakes, but for downstream receiving waters as well. Much of the region’s water flows through or drains into the lakes, and the improvement of the lake system will bring significant benefits to the region. Another significant consideration in the project is flood reduction, and the creation of the lakeside amenities is one way by which it seeks to protect neighborhoods from flooding. To achieve this goal, Chrisco emphasizes the importance of coordination within the teams. This allows them to consider critical water elevations and how the bodies of water can be connected hydraulically. 

For Sasaki’s team, this meant understanding both the minimum depth of water needed to restore the lake system and the volume and amount of material created. The team began exploring placements for the planned programming and amenities, which was influenced by areas where large outfalls exist. Understanding where the excess dredge will be placed meant that the team could accurately develop flood risk reduction solutions. Anna Cawrse, Landscape Architect and Principal at Sasaki, notes that this is an ongoing “back and forth” process between the teams on the project. As new areas are dredged there is a constant evolution of the engineering understanding as different methods are deployed to dredge the lake. The end result is that the plan allows the system to get ahead of flood events by creating additional storage in the lakes and using the additional material to “improve water quality and the lakes.” 

The University Lakes project represents a creative and sustainable approach to the problems the lake system has faced in the past. This is a departure from similar, traditional dredging projects in that the excess material is being used as a part of an innovative strategy to improve water quality and reduce flood risk. The project is also innovative from a landscape architecture perspective. Cawrse notes that because dredge material takes at least 90 days to settle, their strategy for creating the new landscape is “successional.” This means that, even though the team is unable to place any amenities or walkways until the land is settled, they are working to establish the landscape as quickly as possible. In this plan, by the time the land is settled and ready for paths and amenities, the area will already have a “beautiful southern Louisiana landscape,” says Cawrse. 

The University Lakes project is unique in its scale, and this scale is only intensified by its location in an urban, heavily developed area. While other dredging projects have utilized dredge material for reuse, it doesn’t often happen at this scale. Cawrse notes that the University Lakes project—because of its ability to balance the project with community and recreational space—is a good model for similar projects moving forward. Indeed, the ability to move thousands of cubic yards of dredge material sustainably within an area that includes numerous neighborhoods and the state university is indicative of the innovative approaches taken by Sasaki and all the teams that are involved in the University Lakes project.