I have seen both ends of the Pearl River and there is something about it that pulls at my memory and conscience. I spent many happy hours fishing the marshes of Lake Borgne in Louisiana with my father. The Pearl empties into the Mississippi Sound and Lake Borgne, and its fresh water plays a big part in maintaining moderate salinities in the Biloxi Marshes of St. Bernard Parish and coastal waters surrounding the mouth of the river in Hancock County and St. Tammany Parish. The redfish, trout, flounder, sheepshead, croakers and crabs that we caught in Lake Borgne during our 20 years of Shell Beach fishing trips owed much to the river’s influence on the estuary.
I’ve visited the river’s headwaters too. I was fortunate enough to be taken by the tribal lands manager for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians to see the origin of the Pearl River at Nanih Wayiah in Neshoba County. Slow moving, tea- colored, small woodland creeks come together in a placid cypress and tupelo gum wetland near the Choctaw’s sacred mound with its cave that plays a main role in the tribe’s creation story. The Pearl begins a 390 mile journey there that takes it eventually through the Honey Island Swamp to the coastal marshes south of the U.S. Highway 90 Bridge in Pearlington, Mississippi.
The Pearl River is responsible for my introduction to the seasonal ritual of spring-time white crappie fishing in the Ross Barnett Reservoir. Like all big southern coastal plain rivers it has these handsome green-hued fish with black vertical bars that are delicious and easy to catch. Crappie are found in the main river channel, but they become abundant in backwater lakes along the river’s floodplain. Since the Barnett dam was placed on the river in the 1960’s the artificial lake it created has allowed crappie to proliferate and support a big recreational fishery.
The swampy upper Reservoir on the Pearl made possible the fishing trips and duck hunts that I had with my son, and winter birdwatching picnics with my wife and daughter. We had great times together in a pirogue pushing into the dead brown cattails to make a duck blind, or paddling to see winter birds along the marshy islands and old channels upstream of Highway 43 – all publicly accessible. On warm days in late February or March I would pick up my son from school to make a run up the river to chase football-size largemouth bass in the warming water of the lotus flats. You haven’t really lived until you’ve played a nice fish while an alligator scoots under your pirogue leaving a bubble trail on a warm March afternoon. Realizing that an eighth of an inch of fiberglass is all that separates you and your child from a swimming dinosaur is sobering and thrilling at the same time.
The river leaves the Ross Barnett dam and runs through an urban reach in Rankin and Hinds Counties that includes the cities of Jackson, Flowood and Richland. Here is where the river plays on my conscience. The human impacts to the river are visible through the Jackson section. The things we have done to the Pearl River become apparent and unavoidable. The fishermen at the dam’s spillway seem to be as good at littering as they are at fishing, and every one of the ten urban creeks draining Jackson in the section between the Barnett dam and Interstate 20 delivers a seemingly endless supply of floating trash. There is now a technical term for this in the field of waste management – floatables. The waterborne trash that can turn the Pearl into a liquid landfill is about half recyclable plastic bottles and aluminum cans. There is much styrofoam, plus every kind of plastic packaging waste imaginable. Logos from every fast food restaurant around Jackson are visible on cups and food packaging that ends up trapped in trash eddies, log piles and treetops along the banks of the Pearl River. All of this trash escapes both proper disposal and recycling, and is going onto the ground or roadside where wind, rainfall and gravity inevitable deliver it to a ditch or storm drain, then to a creek and then to the river. Human hands once held each item, but their owner failed to properly dispose of waste.
Much of the urban section of the river below the Reservoir Spillway through Jackson to the waterworks is beautiful, with lush bottomland forests along its banks. Regular sightings of bald eagles, other raptors, otters, beaver and a variety of migratory birds await those who float this section. River users who enjoy the Pearl’s wildness through the urban reach (despite its condition) feel a tug of heartbreak about the amount of trash in the river. The city drinks water drawn from this section of the Pearl, and it seems people should care more about what floats in their drinking water. People haven’t stopped fishing in the river despite it being strewn with garbage. We really need to stop accepting this condition as normal. Something has to give.
But…hopeful things are now happening on the Pearl. The Pearl has a Riverkeeper since last summer. Abby Braman moved to Madison two years ago with her family and began looking for a place to kayak and hike. What she saw at the Reservoir and spillway was a shock to her conscience. Having moved from Virginia where rivers are cleaner, she couldn’t figure out why the Pearl’s condition is something we accept. She began with a small cleanup and a goal of collecting 1000 empty discarded plastic water bottles. That goal took her less than a month to reach. Then she took an idea to the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District for a cleanup and a public information campaign to get the recreational users and fishermen at the spillway to change their behavior. The District threatened to close the spillway fishing area if the littering didn’t improve. This was about the boldest move I’ve seen a state agency take on a quality of life issue. Abby and Louisiana kayak guide Jessica Gauley organized the Pearl Clean Sweep in September and were able to recruit 1000 volunteers in two dozen teams from headwaters to the mouth of the Pearl. The cleanup effort pulled 34,000 lbs. -17 tons - of trash out of the river in one weekend. Since the Clean Sweep, there are more people looking with “new eyes” at the Pearl River’s human impacts in both states and there is hope for a better future on the floatable trash front.
A truly great thing on the Pearl River in Jackson is LeFleur’s Bluff State Park which contains the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science at its southwest corner. The Museum features the fish and turtles of the Pearl River in one of its largest aquarium tanks and in its greenhouse/terrarium exhibits you can see alligators up close. The Museum’s third director, Libby Hartfield, fulfilled her vision when she convinced the Legislature and Wildlife Department 20 years ago to build a new museum facility in this urban state park next to the Pearl River so the river’s natural habitats and park trails could be used as part of the museum experience. The 390 acres along the Pearl now serve as an outdoor classroom and laboratory for teaching children, scout groups, high school and college students. The Museum will break the two million visitor mark soon, and the aquatic and terrestrial habitats of the Pearl River have quietly inspired and impressed all who have passed through its doors.
The urban section of the Pearl is facing an uncertain future this year because a plan to dredge and dam the river is one of the alternatives being considered for a flood control project in the Hinds/Rankin County section of the river through Jackson. Ever since the destructive Pearl River floods of 1979 and 1983, the city of Jackson, state of Mississippi, Army Corps of Engineers and local business community have been engaged in a 35-year disagreement about what kind of flood control project would work best to prevent further catastrophes. The Corps has offered a levee plan, but lukewarm enthusiasm for it, coupled with the desire for a developed commercial riverfront or lake have caused delays in making needed flood control improvements. The development would necessitate dredging a 1500 acre lake into the river’s channel for faster conveyance of floods through Jackson, and building a dam or weir at the lake’s lower end. The lake would stretch between Hwy. 25 (Lakeland Drive) to just below Interstate 20. Large losses of wetlands would occur in a flood control project like this and downstream interests on the Pearl River have questions about how flow would be impacted if a new lake is added to the already dammed river. Habitat for two species protected by the Endangered Species Act is found in this section of the river. The Gulf sturgeon’s breeding habitat is protected here, and a population of 1000-1800 Ringed sawback turtles lives there too. Both of these species are designated as threatened by the Act. Levees, floodplain buyouts or some less drastic channel modifications are also being considered as alternatives by relevant studies, but the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District is leaning toward the lake as the locally preferred plan. Congressional money and state matching funds would be needed to build the lake or other design. There are still many questions about what kind of project could protect Jackson without disrupting the river any more than necessary.
These are tough questions on our Pearl River – we already ask so much of it. Rivers like the Pearl have to run through a landscape changed by people. The river provides drinking and industrial water for Jackson. The Pearl between Jackson and the coast is a working river with 106 discharge permits on it that allow city sewage treatment plants and industries to discharge treated water into it. The fresh water of the Pearl mixes with the saltier water of the Mississippi Sound and provides the right water quality balance to sustain the oysters, shrimp, crabs and fish that are the backbone of the commercial fishing industry in two states. Restoration of marshes, shorelines and oyster reefs, funded by the BP oil spill settlement and fines, depend on adequate fresh water flow from the river. In the Honey Island Swamp, a growing nature-based tourism industry needs stable water levels that allow boats to ferry visitors through the Lower Pearl’s varied habitats.
The more I’ve gotten to know the Pearl River from Nanih Wayiah to Lake Borgne and the Hancock marshes, the more I have come to appreciate what it offers. The Pearl River, in spite of our impacts, is still a treasure and critical restoration work is happening that can make it healthier. The river has problems and challenges, but it has hopeful things happening too. People who care are getting involved in new ways, and it is about time.
Andrew Whitehurst is Water Program Director at Gulf Restoration Network and lives in Madison, Ms.