On July 7th WLBT, Channel 3 in Jackson, Mississippi presented a feature about flooding on the Pearl River titled “A River Runs Through It.” The segment ran on the 10 p.m. news as a “3 On Your Side” special report to update the currently proposed project to dredge and widen the Pearl River though part of Jackson , and install a dam to create another in-channel lake to control flooding on the Pearl River.
Interviewed for the story were Keith Turner and Dallas Quinn. Turner is a member of the Jackson-based Watkins Eager law firm and is the attorney for the project’s sponsoring agency, the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District (The District). Quinn represents the Pearl River Vision Foundation, the non-profit corporation that has as its sole mission the promotion of this new lake development as an economic development asset for Jackson. Both men talked-up the idea of building a lake on the Pearl to control flooding and provide development, but nobody in the story discussed the environmental consequences or concerns of further impounding the river.
Those who want the new lake seem to forget that Jackson already has a 32,000 acre lake on the Pearl River, located only a few miles upstream from downtown, called the Ross Barnett Reservoir. “The Rez” as it is called, was built in the early 1960s with a modestly sized earth filled dam designed to provide drinking water and recreation. Its short dam sets it apart from true flood control reservoirs like Sardis, Enid and Grenada lakes in north Mississippi that were built with taller and much more massive dams that have significant flood storage capacity. The Ross Barnett Reservoir wasn’t built for flood storage and that is a big part of Jackson’s problem.
The flooding question for Jackson is how to control large releases from the Reservoir without flooding the city just downstream. Levees will work, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, but are expensive and don’t offer the value- added development that would entice Jackson and the state to pay for them. An idea to build a large “dry dam” at Shoccoe, well upstream of the Ross Barnett Reservoir was politically untenable and was abandoned decades ago. The lake idea, in some form, may give flood relief by passing a large volume of water through Jackson faster and at a lower flood height. However, this alternative would involve dredging, widening and then further impounding a river that already has a large dam and lake on it.
This cumulative impact to the Pearl River is a concern that Gulf Restoration Network, its allies and various downstream interests all have about creating another lake on the river. Dams disrupt rivers. The more dams you build, the worse the disruption becomes. To look for a nearby example, all you have to do is observe what Atlanta’s need for water has done to rivers in Georgia, Alabama and Florida that have multiple dams. You can see who wins and who loses when rivers are controlled with a series of lakes. Atlanta wins. It uses water and returns treated waste water to the river systems, but the multiple lakes also evaporate much more water from their surfaces than the formerly free flowing rivers did. The water use and the water loss to the atmosphere are being felt downstream. Apalachicola Bay in Florida loses –it’s now being slowly starved of fresh water. The Bay’s oyster resources have dwindled as the estuary has become saltier through diminished flows. The right salinity mix to grow oysters is being lost. Considered strictly as physical features, our coastal rivers deliver water, sediment and nutrients downstream and eventually to estuaries and the Gulf. In our case, the Pearl feeds the western Mississippi Sound, Lake Borgne and associated estuaries. Fresh water swamps, coastal bays and marshes in both Louisiana and Mississippi are the beneficiaries of the Pearl River’s flow, sediment and nutrients.
The lake promoters’ vision is and always has been to build something that would perform flood control and have the value-added feature of economic development for Jackson. A lake is seen as providing more development potential than levees or a dry floodway. Over the past 15 years, the lake idea blossomed to a two lake concept with islands and a casino and then eventually contracted down to one lake in the current project. Jackson’s potential urban lakefront has been pitched as everything from Mississippi’s version of Venice or Paris to a scaled-up San Antonio Riverwalk.
The necessity for flood control in Jackson is real and urgent when the Ross Barnett Reservoir is filled to capacity and is faced with the threat of additional rainfall in the upper Pearl River watershed. This threat happens a couple times per year, usually between November and May, when rains from cold fronts fall on a winter landscape with saturated soils and dormant trees and vegetation not able to take up storm water through evapo-transpiration. The floodgates at Barnett Reservoir must be used as a valve to drain as much water as possible ahead of large rainfall events in order to create a bit of capacity in the reservoir, and then the gates must manage flows out of the lake that threaten to raise the Pearl in Jackson high enough to cause back-flooding up urban creeks or even overtop the existing levees. Both scenarios have happened, creating major floods in 1979 and 1983. Thus, the Ross Barnett Reservoir is a monster situated just upstream of Jackson. Jackson is different from Paris, Venice and San Antonio in this way: they don’t have under-designed upstream reservoirs being used for their flood protection. Jackson’s Pearl River will never be exactly like these other places no matter how much the lake promoters dream and talk.
This lake project is a public-private partnership between the Flood Control District and the Pearl River Vision Foundation. The vision of a new lake on the Pearl in Jackson belongs originally to John McGowan, a local oilfield developer who controls land along the river in the section that would become lake front property. McGowan’s well-connected friends who have also supported a lake development include Delbert Hosemann, the current Mississippi Secretary of State. He served on John McGowan’s Two Lakes Foundation before its name was changed to the Pearl River Vision Foundation. The Secretary of State controls what happens to state-owned lands like Lefleur’s Bluff State Park situated on the banks of the Pearl in Jackson, within the footprint of the proposed lake. LeFleur’s Bluff is Mississippi’s only urban state park. The lake project has enjoyed the backing of the mayors of Jackson and of the cities in Rankin County flanking the river. The Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce Partnership supports a lake and considers it central to its Vision 2022 regional development plan. The project’s feasibility and environmental studies have been funded jointly by the Foundation, The Chamber Partnership, and the Mississippi Development Authority. A million dollar industrial development grant from MDA to fund studies for the lake project came courtesy of the Governor, and State Legislature leadership.
To fund lake construction, McGowan and his allies have made friends in Washington and lobbied Congress, which culminated in having $133 million authorized in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) to fund the Pearl flood control project. WRDA is the periodic funding legislation for Army Corps of Engineers flood control and navigation work around the nation. The amount authorized in WRDA will only fund part of the lake development’s price tag of $350 to $400 million.
The Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District approved a levee expansion project for Jackson in 1996, but state and local decision makers could not agree to build levees then or since. If the will to do so had existed, the Corps’ levee plan would have been executed by now and Jackson would be better protected from flooding. Twenty years is a long time to waste an opportunity.
The feasibility study and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Pearl River flood control lake project are going to be published sometime this summer, according to attorney Turner who is handling the public comment process and communications for the project. The awaited studies and EIS documents are required to list several alternative ways (levees, floodplain buyouts, lake dredging, and channelization) to reduce the threat of flooding in Jackson. We know that the sponsor’s preferred alternative is the lake project (the District already voted on it) and the lake will receive the most discussion, analysis and justification of any of the alternatives presented in the documents. The objectivity of the study and EIS are already in question because we know the District was already committed to the lake alternative when they hired the contractors to write these documents.
Downstream interests had a chance to weigh-in on this project during a required scoping process back in 2013. Since that time, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Commission, in defense of coastal fisheries, passed a 2015 resolution against more lake building on the Pearl or other important coastal rivers. Also, the St. Tammany Parish Council (Louisiana’s version of County Board of Supervisors) has passed a resolution against a lake project on the Pearl River in Jackson specifically because of concerns about harmful effects downstream. Slidell and surrounding areas are particularly vulnerable to changing Pearl River water levels – up or down. Central Mississippi and the Jackson Metro area are going to support the lake, but serious questions have been raised by downstream interests. There was even a component of the 2015 final report completed by The Governor’s Oyster Council that was critical of “inland fresh water depleting projects”, like a new lake on the Pearl. During scoping in 2013, the two state agencies in Louisiana charged with managing wildlife, seafood, and coastal wetland resources, LDWF and CPRA, both submitted scoping comments asking that wetlands and especially salinities not be harmed by reduced flows in the lower Pearl basin.
We will soon see what the sponsors produce in their feasibility study and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) documents and how well a lake project stacks up against other alternatives to protect Jackson from further flooding. What happens on the Pearl in Jackson unfortunately doesn’t stay in Jackson. A new lake on the Pearl will, to some degree, compound the Barnett Reservoir’s degrading effects on downstream flow, habitat and river uses. It will be up to downstream interests to try and temper and shape a flood control solution that doesn’t harm the lower Pearl - the part of the river they care most about.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's Water Program Director and covers Mississippi wetland and water policy issues from Madison, Ms.