Flood control project could cause more damage to oyster industry
The lake would be almost 200 miles, as the river flows, from the Mississippi Sound.
Still, the One Lake project in Jackson has the men and women who make their living harvesting oysters and environmental activists more than a little antsy. And the 1,500-acre lake is little more than a concept with a lot of particulars to come.
Supporters say it will curtail Jackson’s flooding and provide a boost to the metro economy with parks and lakefront homes.
The opponents fear the lake’s weir, a dam that allows a constant flow of water to leave the lake, will alter the flow of freshwater into the Mississippi Sound at the mouth of the Pearl.
In Mississippi, the Hancock County and Lawrence County Boards of Supervisors and the city of Monticello have passed resolutions against the lake as has the Louisiana Legislature, the cities of Slidell, Bogalusa and Pearl River. Numerous environmental groups and the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries agency oppose it. Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United is against it.
The Jackson City Council voted last week in support of the project.
The Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) argues that the flow will be reduced to such an extent that the delicate balance between freshwater and saltwater that is necessary to grow oysters will be upset. Supporters of the project say there is no evidence that will happen.
“What they say is everything is fine,” said Andrew Whitehurst, water policy director for the Gulf Restoration Network. “But if you go through the data with a comb, without a lot of averaging, you find the flow is different than what they say.
“And, if you add their assumed evaporation levels for the lake, it goes lower.”
Whitehurst said his group has consulted experts, and engineers with the St. Tammany Parish predict that enough water will be lost to evaporation to lower water levels in the lower Pearl and change its salinity.
A history of flooding
The proposed lake is the latest response to the infamous Easter flood of 1979, when rain upstream pushed the Pearl 25 feet above flood stage and chased 17,000 people from their homes. Since then, said Keith Turner — attorney for the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District that wants to build the lake — a weir was built downstream from the massive Ross Barnett Reservoir, the river was straightened into what he likened to a big ditch, and levees were built. Still, the river leaves its banks during periods of heavy rainfall.
Whitehurst said that after the Ross Barnett Reservoir was built in 1960, the Pearl has been below the 290 cubic feet per second flow that is needed by a massive sewage treatment plant near Jackson about 18 percent of the time.
“If that Savannah Street sewage plant does not have that 290, then it doesn’t have the proper mixing of waste into freshwater. And that’s an impairment of the river and an impairment for downstream.”
Turner said it is Whitehurst and GRN who have it wrong.
“He has gone all over South Mississippi and along the lower Pearl and spread all kinds of misinformation without any supporting facts or science or engineering,” he said. “What folks need to realize, we understand their concern and we’ve looked at that, studied it. We’re not going to have a project approved, the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) can’t approve a project, if it’s going to cause problems downstream. We can’t flood somebody else. We can’t dry up the river. We can’t impact the fisheries.”
Long way from a lake
For now, the lake exists only as a “tentatively selected plan” that is the basis for a 1,500 page combined feasibility study/environmental impact statement prepared by the Drainage Control District.
The Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources also passed a resolution in opposition but the Department of Marine Resources, which the Commission oversees, is giving the project a second look now that the EIS is out.
“The Commission resolves that the Commission is opposed to the permitting or construction of any dam or weir that would further reduce the natural seasonal flow of freshwater into Mississippi’s estuarine waters,” the resolution passed in 2015 says. “The Commission is opposed to the permitting or construction of the proposed reservoir located on the Pearl River designated as the Mississippi Pearl River Project located near Jackson, Mississippi.”
Executive Director Joe Spraggins said backers of the lake project have provided more information.
“The main reason it was passed is, number one, they didn’t have enough information to say if it was good or bad,” said Spraggins, who came to DMR after the resolution was passed. “They asked the Corps to go back and give us more information and do more studies to see whether there wouldn’t be any impact on the Coast or anything else.”
He said the CMR has met with the Corps but still has questions.
“We’re waiting for that information,” he said. “We holding up to our 2015 resolution until we get more information.”
Meeting on the Coast
The downstream meeting on the One Lake environmental study will be at 6 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Infinity Science Center just off I-10 at exit 2 in Hancock County. Whitehurst said people were “blowing up his phone” before the June 24 meeting in Jackson so there is likely to be a lively crowd at Infinity, just two miles from the Pearl and the Louisiana state line.
The oyster industry, primarily on the western end of the Mississippi, has been in deep trouble for years. Hurricane Katrina filled the Sound with everything from cars to the kitchen sinks of houses it wiped out along the beach. Then came the BP oil spill which further distressed the oyster reefs and a 2011 Mississippi River flood that virtually killed them with a massive infusion of freshwater.
Mississippi has spent millions trying to revive those reefs with the lofty goal of producing a million sacks of oysters a year. The Oyster Council convened by Gov. Phil Bryant to try to revive the reefs concluded that the state should “discourage freshwater depleting projects and educate decision-makers on impacts of major freshwater depleting projects.”
It will ultimately be up to the Corps to determine whether One Lake will further disrupt the industry. And even with the Corps’ approval, backers would have to come up with more than $130 million for the project. A bill that would have allowed the state to borrow $50 million for the project passed the state House this year but stalled in the Senate. The federal government has had $133 million earmarked for the project since 2007 but it has yet to be appropriated.
“This project works,” said Turner. “Technically it works. The impacts have been studied by the Corps, the Fish and Wildlife experts. I don’t have a report I can hand you that says that but those are the dialogues we’re having with them because we’re in the review process. We’ve had a two-year review process. A lot of people are looking at it.
“So far no one has said we’re going to cause a problem on the flow issue.”
He said the Rankins-Hinds district will have an array of experts at the Infinity meeting to answer questions one on one. And it extended until Sept. 6 the comment period at the request of the opponents. Comments will be taken at the Infinity meeting and can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or submitted at rankinshindsflooddistrict.ms.gov.