Jackson County

Just because this river’s not on the list doesn’t mean it’s not in danger

Clouds are reflected in ripples in the Pascagoula River. The Pascagoula is not on the 2017 Most Endangered Rivers list, but it was last year.
Clouds are reflected in ripples in the Pascagoula River. The Pascagoula is not on the 2017 Most Endangered Rivers list, but it was last year. ttisbell@sunherald.com File

The Pascagoula River is not on the America’s Most Endangered Rivers list released this week.

It made the 2016 list, but Coast conservationists aren’t worried.

American Rivers, an organization devoted to protecting and restoring rivers in the United States, listed the Pascagoula as endangered last year when fears arose that damming two tributaries that feed the river near the Coast could “cause permanent damage to the river’s fish and wildlife, recreation opportunities and natural heritage.”

The Most Endangered list has a very specific purpose, they said — to draw attention to a river during a year when there are key decisions being made.

Even though the Pascagoula — the largest free-flowing river in the continental United States — still faces the possibility of having the tributaries dammed to create twin lakes called Lake George, this isn’t a key year for decisions.

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers Mobile District is doing an environmental assessment on the project that could take up to two years.

It held a public scoping meeting in December to kick that off and heard an outcry about the “fake lakes.”

Amy Kober with American Rivers said, “Just because it isn’t on the list doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter or that we’re not fighting for it.

“We list 10 a year. There are always rivers facing threats that aren’t on the list.”

Getting on the list

To get a river on the list, there has to be a key decision point that year, where the public can “speak up and influence decisions,” she said, “force decision-makers to make the right decision,” and change the course, so to speak.

Steve Shepard with the Coast Chapter of the Sierra Club said he believes nothing will happen to the river until the corps’ environmental impact study is complete.

“I won’t be surprised if after the EIS, it is put back on the list,” he said.

When the Pascagoula made the list, American Rivers said it was “shining a national spotlight on the threat that a misguided dam-building scheme poses to the river and its communities.”

Pat Harrison Waterway District and George County are applying to build the lakes to supply water to the Pascagoula River during times of extreme drought. They estimate the lakes and dams would affect 1,200 acres of wetlands, 42 miles of stream channels and 25 acres of open water.

Jackson County originally supported the project, but after elections two years ago put two new county supervisors in office, support shifted to protecting the river.

Magnitude plays a part

American Rivers said the magnitude of the threat plays into its decision process for the list. Over the years, the report has helped with the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations and the prevention of harmful development and pollution, the report said.

The Environmental Protection Agency calls the Pascagoula River “a resource of national importance” running through the Gulf Coastal plain, American Rivers said, and has called for the Corps of Engineers to deny the twin lakes project as unnecessary.

On the 2017 list is neighboring Mobile Bay Basin, which is composed of all the rivers that flow into Mobile Bay.

According to American Rivers, the threat there is poor water management.

“The Mobile Bay Basin accounts for approximately 14 percent of all the freshwater flows in the continental U.S.,” it said. “Failure to protect river flows at the state and federal level imperils hundreds of threatened and endangered species, the regional economy and drinking water supplies for millions of people.”

The issue became acute in 2016, when a drought exposed problems in Alabama.

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