The Greater Jackson Partnership gave an update on its Vision 2022 plan on Thursday September 25th. Vision 2022 was begun in 2012 as a 10 year master plan for development in downtown Jackson. Its centerpiece is a new lake along the urban reach of the Pearl River, but there are parts of the plan that don’t depend on a lake. Sunglasses and a speaker program were handed out to all who registered. Apparently Jackson’s future is so bright, everyone’s going to need shades.
The first update was by Mayo Flynt, of AT&T’s state corporate office. He talked about the need for a lake on the Pearl River in Jackson as the ”game changer” that has now gotten farther along than any of the previous lake plans. I didn’t hear Mr. Flynt mention flood control as even a partial reason for building the lake, although that’s how the Corps of Engineers will have to evaluate it. The lake is being sponsored by the Hinds Rankin Pearl River Flood Control and Drainage District. They weren’t mentioned either.
Flynt painted a pure economic development picture of a revitalized Jackson for the imaginations of the bankers, and business developers in his audience. He compared a lake on this polluted, urban section of the Pearl River to Central Park in New York City. Central Park is 840 acres and the Pearl lake will be 1500. Nobody in the partisan crowd questioned this. Central Park is dry land, and no waterbody within it captures 10 urban watersheds and drainage ditches like Jackson’s lake will. The floating trash on the Pearl River in Jackson turns it into a moving landfill during flood stages, and the river’s urban section remains today under a fecal coliform bacteria advisory from MDEQ due to uncontrolled sewage releases.
Flynt said there is “ no project with more potential to transform and improve our quality of life than a lake development on the Pearl River” He then showed slides of Chattanooga, Oklahoma City and Little Rock, three cities with new riverfront development.
When the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the lake project comes out for public notice in late 2014 or early 2015, Gulf Restoration Network and others will be ready to challenge this idea to further dam and fragment the Pearl River. The Ross Barnett Reservoir and its dam have disrupted flows and physical processes downriver all the way to the coast in both Mississippi and Louisiana for nearly 50 years. Any river modifications presented in the EIS for Pearl River flood control or economic development must comply with federal laws on procedure, wetlands protection, and endangered species, and state laws that protect water quality downstream.
Later in the program, urban planning professor Mukesh Kumar from Jackson State University gave a talk on three urban corridors in Jackson that could be re-developed. Coincidentally, these corridors and their blighted neighborhoods are on high ground that doesn’t flood. The ironic contrast with Mayo Flynt’s lake promotion talk stood out to me. It makes more sense to re-develop high land in the city than it does to build another dam and transform a river and what’s left of its floodplain and wetlands into lakefront real estate.
Sitting upstream of the 1500 acre lake project is a monster: the 32,000 acre Barnett Reservoir that still must be used to release flood waters if the smaller lake is built. Redeveloping blighted urban Jackson may be a challenge on many levels, but it won’t tempt fate the same way this lake will. Replacing streamside wetland forests with waterfront development in the name of flood control is a gamble on a powerful river like the Pearl. Along with sunglasses at the event, the sponsors should have also given out pairs of hip-boots to hedge this risk.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN’s Water Policy Director and works on Mississippi water and wetland issues.