Lake Pontchartrain in southeastern Louisiana is the largest of several shallow estuaries that together cover over 15,000 km2. Wetlands, forests, and large urban areas surround the lake. Primary transport mechanisms of sediments to Lake Pontchartrain include urban runoff, major diversions of the Mississippi River, discharge from streams along the north and west shores, and tidal circulation. Sediments deposited in Lake Pontchartrain are subjected to resuspension and mixing by natural and human activities. Bioturbation and water turbulence throughout the lake are the major mixing agents, and mechanical shell dredging has reworked much of the lake bottom over the last century. Sediment characterization through direct sampling and geophysical surveys indicates that these processes continually rework the top meter of sediment.
The lake receives discharge from roadways and industrial and agricultural sources. Contaminants from these sources accumulate in the lake sediments and are an important contributor to the degradation of the estuary. Decline in populations of various benthic organisms, such as shrimp and clams, has been documented in the lake. To characterize the health of this important estuary, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the geology, geomorphology, coastal processes, and environmental condition of the Pontchartrain Basin from 1994 to 1997. This report presents an assessment of sediment distribution and quality using a multidisciplinary approach to characterize the influence of various physical and chemical parameters: nearsurface stratigraphy, major trace metal concentrations (Cu, Pb, Zn, and Ni), and short-lived radionuclides (210Pb, 7Be, and 137Cs). The results are compared with water-circulation patterns to determine high-resolution sedimentation patterns in the lake. The data show a significant increase in trace metals in the top 1 m of lake sediments. Above this horizon, pollen analysis indicates a correlation with land clearing in the area, a proxy for increasing human development of the surrounding landscape and an increase in surface run-off. The data also show that the top meter of sediment undergoes frequent resuspension during high-energy circulation events and via circulation gyres in the lake. This regular turnover does not allow stratification of recently deposited sediments, restricting the sequestration of contaminated material that enters the lake.