Crayfish burrow with mix of sand and bog detritus. Photo courtesy of R.L. Jones, Joelle Carney, and the Mississippi Natural Heritage Program. Cities need their wetlands as natural defenses against flooding and there is no better example of this than in North Gulfport. Roughly 1,000 acres of land, mostly flat, pine wetlands are situated in Gulfport between Canal Road and U.S. Hwy 49, south of Interstate 10. This area is owned by “Butch” Ward who has already developed part of the wetlands as an outlet mall. He has now also submitted an application to the Corps of Engineers to fill 383 more wetland acres to build a mixed commercial, industrial, and warehouse park.
According to the applicant’s environmental assessment, in the geologic past, this area was sea bottom and beach. Underlying the pine trees, grasses and scrub of the wet savanna are eroded sand dunes that run east-west. In any of the bogs or wet forests that have developed on top of these sand deposits, you just need to look at the crayfish burrows to tell what lies beneath – the chimneys the crayfish build there are mostly sand, mixed with brown organic bog detritus.
The urbanizing edge of Gulfport is encroaching more each year on these pine savanna wetlands. They are perceived as valuable only if they can be filled and developed, but they also have value in flood control.
The underlying sand layers store and conduct a great volume of water. The bogs north of I-10, and the wet pine savannas along Turkey Creek south of I-10 act as sponges to store water and gradually feed nearby streams with shallow ground water. Turkey Creek runs southeast through the Ward property.
The fate of these spongy wetlands matters a great deal to the residents of nearby subdivisions and communities in the Turkey Creek flood plain. Wetlands absorb and store water every time it rains, from summer showers to driving hurricane squalls. Their value in a place with very flat topography, like North Gulfport, is hard to over-estimate. One acre of wetlands can store 1 to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater, according to the EPA. If Ward is allowed to fill 383 acres of wetlands with 2 feet of impermeable clay, the water that ordinarily would soak into the ground will become surface runoff. The residents of the nearby neighborhoods know where the excess water will go. Turkey Creek can only take so much water before it overflows its banks and North Gulfport already has flooding problems. The water will be in people’s homes, and will cover their roads.
This wetland fill permit, if granted would be exceeded in acreage only by the wetland losses caused by the construction of the Gulfport Airport farther downstream on Turkey Creek. Gulf Restoration Network and others have submitted comments to the US Army Corps of Engineers Mobile District opposing this permit and asking for, among other things, a full Environmental Impact Statement, an analysis of alternatives (the permit offered none), and for the Corps to hold public meetings in the affected communities. We’ll keep you up to date as the fight to protect North Gulfport from flooding continues.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's Assistant Director of Science and Water Policy.