The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) is the omnibus Congressional bill that funds the Army Corps of Engineers in their work on the nation’s waterways. A 2016 version of WRDA is moving through Congress now and has passed the U.S. Senate.
Two sections of the Act pertain to projects on the Pearl River in Louisiana and Mississippi. One is good; the other is not so good.
Section 5002 of WRDA describes a good restoration project in Louisiana that would de-authorize and eventually remove old, unused navigational locks meant for barge traffic. The project would cede the control of the structures and property to the State of Louisiana. The negotiation of this solution has taken many years. This project would allow Louisiana to remove structures that no longer work, making the river less fragmented to improve fish migration and make things easier for recreational boaters. The Pearl River’s threatened Gulf sturgeon population and other migratory fish species should benefit.
Section 4020 of WRDA calls for fast-tracking the review and decision process for the Pearl River flood control project in Jackson, Mississippi. This project could impound the river to create a second lake, downstream of the Ross Barnett Reservoir. The WRDA language directs the Army Secretary to “expedite review and decision” for this project. The “One Lake” project has been discussed in various forms for more than a decade. It is described by proponents as a “game changer” for central Mississippi and has been hyped as “Paris on the Pearl” and Jackson’s own version of the San Antonio Riverwalk.
The sponsoring Drainage District members have already voted that their preferred option for flood control is the lake alternative, so fast-tracking Corps of Engineers review and approval could accelerate that outcome. It’s no surprise that Mississippi’s Congressional delegation inserted language into WRDA to help their friends in Jackson. No matter what it does for flood control, developing a new lake on the Pearl will keep large construction firms and real estate developers busy for years. The project to build a lake has been an unusual private/public partnership among the Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce, the non-profit Pearl River Vision Foundation and the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood Control and Drainage District. The Mississippi Development Authority has granted the sponsors $1 million of state money so far for draft feasibility studies and required draft environmental impact statements for the project. The wetland destruction, habitat loss, alterations to flow, evaporation and other downstream effects from a new lake are consistently downplayed when the lake promoters pitch this project.
Gulf Restoration Network supports restoring the Pearl River in both Louisiana and Mississippi. Mississippi has two major coastal plain rivers flowing to the Gulf, but the Pearl River has many more human-impact problems than the Pascagoula River. The Pascagoula is viewed as more natural and pristine than the Pearl. Even so, the Pearl River is incredibly important - it provides more freshwater to estuaries at its lower end than all of the Pontchartrain basin rivers combined. Lake Borgne, the Rigolets, the Biloxi Marshes of St. Bernard Parish, the Hancock County marshes in Mississippi and the western Mississippi Sound all need the Pearl’s freshwater flow to help keep salinities moderate.
The Pearl River has alterations to its flow and sediment transport because of the presence of the Ross Barnett Reservoir and dam in its middle section. Old navigational locks and associated structures downstream of Bogalusa, Louisiana add to the river’s problems. Removing some of these problems is progress, and this isn’t the only restoration activity relevant to the Pearl River.
A recent restoration project is dependent on the undiminished freshwater discharge of the Pearl River. This spill damage restoration project in Mississippi is funded to create several miles of living shoreline, forty acres of restored marsh and another forty acres of oyster bottom. This project between the mouth of the Pearl River and Bayou Caddy is designed to stabilize the receding marsh shoreline in the area of Heron Bay, but the project's success depends on salinity being kept moderate with adequate fresh water flow from the Pearl River. Diminished flow, caused by another impoundment on the Pearl River to create a lake, will work against the $50 million being spent for this post-BP restoration work near the Pearl’s mouth. The habitat value of this restoration, if it is successful, will accrue to estuaries in both Mississippi and Louisiana.
At best, there is Congressional confusion evident here with WRDA sections that work against one another. The 2016 WRDA bill provides for removing one environmentally damaging project (locks) from a lower reach of the Pearl River, and expedites Corps of Engineers review that can help accelerate approval to create another harmful project (the lake) farther upstream on the river. Also, having Mississippi spend $50 million to rebuild and protect marshes at the Pearl River’s lower end, while aiding an upriver project that would work to starve that same restoration of needed fresh water reveals some confusion at the state level.
Despite the contradictions, the Pearl River is finally in line to get some needed restoration that can improve its function and habitats. Vigilance is needed to insure that projects don’t work at crossed purposes.
Andrew Whitehrust is GRN's Water Program Director and covers Mississippi water and wetland issues from Madison, Ms.