Jackson County

Lake George isn’t dead, it’s only sleeping until January

This aerial photo and added illustration shows the two lakes proposed by damming tributaries to the lower Pascagoula River.
This aerial photo and added illustration shows the two lakes proposed by damming tributaries to the lower Pascagoula River.

Lake George is not dead. It’s just been sleeping, and it’s about to wake up.

The application for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits is moving forward. There’s a new website, and the Corps plans a public meeting in late January. It’s the beginning of the EIS, the environmental impact study that takes 2-3 years.

It’s been more than a year since opposition began to build against the twin-lake project that George County supervisors propose — to dam two tributaries to the largest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states, the Pascagoula River. Some of the opposition was heated.

George County is pitching it, along with the Pat Harrison Waterway District, as a drought-control measure for the Pascagoula. But it’s a project that also includes hopes of using the lakes for recreation and improving property values in the rural southeast part of George County and some of north Jackson County.

The sticking point for others on the Coast has been damming tributaries that feed the lower Pascagoula River.

We’re trying to tell people it is a fair and open process. Participate, whether you’re for or against it.

Jeff Ballweber, with the Pickering Firm working on the Lake George

Some are afraid it would cost the river its designation, which is an actual and potential tourist draw with a new Pascagoula River Audubon Center, McCoy Swamp & River Tours and Eco-Tours of South Mississippi in Jackson County.

The new website appeared this month: “Pascagoula Drought Resiliency Project Environmental Impact Statement.”

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It outlines the project, gives maps and drawings, and puts the proposal out there for the public to see in one place. It also offers a place where interested people and groups can sign up for updates.

The environmental impact study is where the Corps decides if George County and Pat Harrison get the permits they need to dam and create lakes, whether the project can be worked out, mitigated or needs to die. The lengthy process includes the Corps working to satisfy concerned groups or determine if there’s too much impact, a spokesman with the Corps told the Sun Herald.

The website is managed by AECOM, an environmental engineering firm out of Atlanta that will work with and for the Corps. The cost for AECOM will be paid by the applicant, those proposing the lakes.

The idea is to construct two lakes that are connected. Proponents say the value of the Lake George project is to restore the watershed’s subsurface water table to minimize low flows in the Pascagoula River, and that the lakes would store sufficient surface water to supplement the river in drought. In the proposal, they say the lakes would also provide additional public recreation.

The applicants say the Pascagoula River is changing and that water and climate data indicates droughts will become more frequent and severe.

Environmentalists have been outraged at the proposal. They have said the Pascagoula is free-flowing and naturally handles drought. They believe the Pascagoula River is best left unchanged.

Jackson County originally joined George County in supporting the project. Its supervisors saw a way to support a project that was important to a neighboring county. But earlier this year, it withdrew its support.

One Jackson County supervisor revealed he had a part-ownership in property that might be bought or improved by the lakes. Coast legislators held their own scoping hearings on whether the project was actually beneficial enough to risk jeopardizing the Pascagoula River. And in April, American Rivers named the Pascagoula River one of America’s Most Endangered for 2016 because of the lake proposal.

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The project proposes to fill wetlands and construct two dams to create two lakes that combined would be about 3,000 acres.

It would impact: 1,200 acres of wetlands, 42 miles of stream channels and 25 acres of open water.

Jeff Ballweber, with the Pickering Firm out of Jackson, working on the Lake George project said, “We’re trying to tell people it is a fair and open process. Participate, whether you’re for or against it.”

He encouraged people to use the website to make their case.

He said the project is “very much alive,” and it’s an emotional issue.

A fight erupted at the Hurley informational meeting last year.

“We did let them (AECOM) know about our experiences, especially at the second Jackson County meeting,” Ballweber said. “Hopefully people will be able to get their points across in a civilized, professional manner.”

Opposition was strong at meeting in Vancleave