Hancock County

Coast seafood industry skeptical of Jackson lake project. ‘I have a lot of concerns.’

Bill Bradburn, left, of Louisiana is worried that the One Lake project could one day flood his home near the Morgan River.
Bill Bradburn, left, of Louisiana is worried that the One Lake project could one day flood his home near the Morgan River. jphampton@sunherald.com

The manager of one of the Coast’s largest oyster processors is wary of the proposed One Lake flood control project in Jackson.

“I have a lot of concerns about the project,” said Jennifer Jenkins, whose family has owned Crystal Seas Seafood in Pass Christian since 1966.

She and about 50 others listened to a half-hour presentation on Thursday at the Infinity Science Center about 2 miles east of the Pearl River. It was given by lawyers and engineers working on the project for the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District.

“I listened to them explain but I still have a lot of concerns that it’s going to affect the oyster and seafood industry and parts of the lower Pearl River.”

Her worry, which mirrors that of environmental activists, is that building the lake will reduce the flow of freshwater into the Mississippi Sound and upset the delicate balance of freshwater and saltwater necessary for oysters and other seafood to thrive.

It’s unlikely that many minds were changed by the presentation that noted the planners — based on analysis of gauge data — don’t believe the amount and quality of water flowing downstream will change significantly.

They also said the amount of water flowing into the sound owes more to the two thirds of the Pearl River watershed that lies below Jackson than it would to the water flowing through the lake. And they say they’ve modified the plans after concerns were raised downstream on the Pearl River.

“We had a low-flow gate, we added a fish passage,” said Blake Mendrop of Mendrop Engineering Resources of Ridgeland, one of the firms working on the project. “At low flow, water will be flowing over the weir, or the fish passages or the gate.”

What’s a weir?

A weir is a type of dam designed to allow water to flow over it and downstream continuously. If the lake should drop below the top of the weir, a gate could be opened to allow more water out of the lake.

“We’ll have to have a DEQ permit and that permit will require us to maintain the flow of the river,” said Keith Turner, an attorney for the district. He said enforcement would be up to the DEQ and he couldn’t say what the penalty might be if the flow dropped below the DEQ’s requirement. The project’s supporters said it will help prevent a recurrence of the 1979 Easter flood that put a large part of Jackson under water. Today, they say, such a flood would cost billions of dollars.

Andrew Whitehurst, water policy director of the Gulf Resources Network, said he questions the accuracy of the flow assessment because it relies on average. He said GRN will be filing a comment based on a more accurate assessment by its hydrologist.

“It raises questions if you look at the raw data,” he said. “If you analyze it yourself, using the same number they used from the United States Geological Survey, you see the river has had low flow periods since 1960s that are more numerous than their data would suggest.”

But, will it flood?

While the seafood industry is most concerned about crimping the flow of water down the Pearl, others we wondering if One Lake might one day unleash too much water.

Bill and Peggy Bradburn watched and waited to see if the piece of land they had their eyes on would flood. They eventually bought and built a home on that land near the Morgan River, a tributary of the Pearl north of Pearl River, La.

“What happens if they have to let the water out to keep it from flooding up there?” Peggy wondered. Engineer Koby Wofford tried to assure that if it appeared an unusual amount of water was headed to the lake, the gate would be open to “pre-release” water to make room for the flood headed its way.

“It floods downstream now,” she said. “The lake won’t prevent that but it won’t make it worse.

Audubon remains opposed

Jill Mastrototaro, director of policy for Audubon Mississippi, was passing out brochures and “One River, No Lake” stickers outside Infinity. She said the Environmental Impact Statement, the subject of the meeting, lacked required critical pieces: a Wildlife Coordination Act Report, an Independent External Peer Review Report and a Biological Opinion.

Audubon and 24 other organizations sent a letter to the Vicksburg Army Corps of Engineers office asking them to take over the project.

Turner responded with two letters that addressed a variety of complaints. On the missing reports, it said:

“The only documents required to be made publicly available with a Draft EIS are those on which the Draft EIS expressly relies. E.g., State of California v. Block, 690 F.2d 753, 765 (9th Cir. 1982). Those documents which the letter claims are required are not documents upon which the EIS relies to reach its conclusions. The appendices attached to the EIS are comprehensive and complete, reflecting the information that was utilized and relied upon to develop the Tentatively Selected Plan. The various review documents referenced in the letter (including the Independent External Peer Review), along with all public comments received through September 6, will be considered in crafting the Final EIS and will be released for public review along with the Final EIS.”

The Hinds-Rankin district agreed to develop the impact statement but will ask the Corps to take over the construction phase if the project is approved.

“It’s imperative the public and natural resource agencies and conservation interests really take a close look at the document despite the fact it is sloppy and biased,” she said. The meeting obviously didn’t change her opposition to the project.

“Different versions of this dam and lake project have been on the table for 20 years,” she said, “presented by self-serving that in the name of economic interests we are going to masquerade this project as flood control. It was convenient the draft impact statement downplays the alternatives (primarily relocation of homes and businesses or adding to the levee system). It also clearly downplays the impact not only to birds and habitat and wildlife but also downstream communities and the economic benefits the Pearl River supports in the state of Mississippi.”