Gulf Restoration Network requested a meeting with the Vicksburg District Corps staff to ask about the status of the WRDA Section 211 flood control (lake) project on the Pearl River. We wanted to discuss the project and ask questions about the process since a local sponsor, and not the Vicksburg Corps, is doing all the planning and study work. The project’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and Feasibility Study (FS) are being finalized now. The Vicksburg Corps staff also invited the sponsors of the project to the meeting, so on November 6th, the Hinds Rankin Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District (local sponsors) attended our Corps meeting with their Board president, attorney and consulting engineer. It was a helpful meeting, with fairly free and candid discussion.
A local sponsor conducting a flood control infrastructure project under Section 211 of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA 2007) is a bit like a college student having a professor assign an independent study project in place of a much tougher final exam. This is generally a sweet deal for the student. Likewise, in the WRDA Section 211 process, the local sponsor (Rankin Hinds District) does all the engineering studies, planning and environmental impact work, undertakes construction and self-finances the project up-front. The Corps must approve the sponsor’s work at certain steps along the way, and the final sign-off is by the Army Secretary for Civil Works in Washington D.C. Our main question is: Will the local sponsor’s feasibility and environmental impact studies done under the WRDA Section 211 option be as rigorously executed as studies done by the Corps of Engineers itself?
We will find out the answer soon. In the process timeline, we are nearing the end of the Draft Feasibility Study/Environmental Impact Study stage, and we are expecting to see drafts of these documents released for public review in late December 2014 or in January 2015.
We were glad to learn that there are three levels of review being applied by the Corps: An in-house review by Vicksburg District staff, an Agency Technical Review (ATR) in which the Corps pulls in experts from Corps-sponsored Centers of Excellence around the country, and finally an Independent External Peer Review (IEPR) by an outside consulting firm which will happen after the public comments on the drafts are incorporated.
We learned that a group of 16 alternatives for flood control are examined and screened in the draft feasibility study. At the end of the study, one will be named the Tentatively Selected Plan (TSP), and one will be the National Economic Development Plan (NED). The sponsoring District is already on record that their Locally Preferred Plan (LPP) calls for the creation of a new lake on the Pearl River. (A 1500 acre lake formed by a dam and by widening, straightening and dredging seven miles of river and riverbank.)
The sponsors say that they are planning for only one public meeting in Jackson in the middle of a 45 day public comment period that starts running upon release of the studies. Now is the time to ask the sponsors and Corps for more than one public meeting.
I asked about the scope of the formal study area, but unfortunately it does not seem to be extended beyond the Jackson Metro area of Hinds and Rankin Counties. This is disturbing, since many people, conservation groups and government agencies asked, in their 2013 scoping comments, for the sponsors to expand the study area and examine all downstream effects (direct and cumulative) that could be expected from building another lake in the channel of the Pearl River. The attorney for the sponsors assured us that despite the study area’s narrow definition, they did cover downstream effects and that we would not be disappointed.
Jackson, Mississippi needs and should have better flood control. However, building another lake on the Pearl’s main channel, and inviting development around its edges, seems to complicate rather than solve flood control problems. Maybe the Corp’s independent reviewers will be troubled by this too. Everyone who regards the Pearl River as something more than an opportunity for real estate development should prepare for the release of the Section 211 Pearl River Flood Control Project Draft EIS and Feasibility Study later this year or in early 2015. Interested people can watchdog the public process, attend the meeting(s), and be prepared to critically examine the published studies.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's Water Program Director and covers Mississippi Water and Wetland Issues.