On Tuesday January 24th in Lucedale, Mississippi, the Mobile District Corps of Engineers and consulting company AECOM hosted a scoping meeting for the Pascagoula River Drought Resiliency Project Environmental Impact Statement. The Mobile Corps District’s Deputy Commander, Col. Landon Ramey spoke to the crowd of 200 about what the Corps needed from the attendees. He invited written and recorded comments that helped identify the scope of issues their work should cover, and gave a very general overview of the process and timeline for creating a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). It is likely a two or three year process. Dozens in the crowd wore “No Fake Lake” stickers, signifying their opposition.
The project would build a pair of lakes on Pascagoula River tributaries Big Cedar Creek and Little Cedar Creek in southern George County. The lakes would be for recreational use, presumably managed by the Pat Harrison Waterway District (a small state agency) and George County government. They would have an overall purpose as storage reservoirs that could send water to the main channel of the Pascagoula River when drought conditions cause it to reach the critical low flow of 917 cubic feet per second at the Merrill flow gage. The dual justifications, which are not well-supported, are: 1) protecting the river’s ecology, and 2) providing supplemental water, so that the industrial water withdrawal pipeline on the river at Cumbest Bluff could operate without interruption due to drought conditions and low flow conditions on the river. The Port of Pascagoula owns the pipeline which serves Mississippi Power’s Plant Daniel, the Chevron Pascagoula Refinery, and other users at the Bayou Cassotte industrial district near Pascagoula, Ms.
This lake project is actually a new version of George County’s desire for a fishing and recreation lake as a way to drive development. George County has gone about fulfilling that desire by designing and pitching this very large dam project to address problems that either don’t need fixing or can be handled other ways. The Environmental Impact Statement process, now underway, must analyze purpose and need to see if any of this sales pitch has merit.
Gulf Restoration Network and others, in their comments, disagree fiercely with the purpose and need for these water storage lakes. The river has survived low flows through recorded time and presumably for thousands of years. The industries have not called for lakes to be built to protect their supply of river water, and several other alternatives exist to fix their problem: conservation and recycling of water by industrial end-users, a desalination plant, and coordinated releases from existing lakes in the Pascagoula Basin managed by the state of Mississippi and its various agencies.
It was news to most meeting attendees that the Mobile Corps District is not going to write the EIS in-house, but that it is working through an outside contractor. That company, AECOM, in 2014 purchased two other environmental consulting companies including URS which has been active in Mississippi and Louisiana. After the merger, AECOM has 45,000 employees and works in 150 countries.
I hope AECOM’s engineers, soil scientists, biologists, modelers, hydrologists and economists have the sense to start fresh. They need to gather an adequate amount of data to write an objective EIS. AECOM should not rely too much on the analyses in the Environmental Assessment that Pickering Engineering and its scientific contractors at Mississippi State University submitted as part of the application for the 2014 Clean Water Act 404 wetland fill permit for the lake project. That application was written using incomplete data. The flow and evaporation modeling produced results that served the sponsors argument for building lakes. “Purpose and Need” analyses by an outside contractor writing this draft EIS must be objective. There is a lot at stake.
The first order of business must be to determine whether industry needs this water or not, because they aren’t showing their cards. The Pascagoula River’s status as a free flowing, relatively unaltered system with high biodiversity is something that Mississippi and the region can be proud of. It is also the calling card for a growing Pascagoula River Eco-Tourism industry and the reason that sturgeon and turtle research projects happen on the Pascagoula. Audubon’s Pascagoula River Education Center was built at Moss Point to celebrate the quality of the Pascagoula system as a whole.
The Pascagoula River and its environments have survived floods and droughts - low flow periods - for centuries and longer. Damming Big Cedar Creek to create lakes in two places is styled as a drought resiliency project for protecting the river’s ecology. There is some irony here because the river systems in this part of the world are considered to be resilient to both floods and droughts. Species of animals and plants on the Pascagoula and on similar big river floodplains in the Southeast U.S. are well adapted to both extremes. If the lakes are supposed to “save” the Pascagoula River ecosystem, it doesn’t need the help. Starting with this scoping process, an honest Environmental Impact Statement will show this.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's water program director and works on Mississippi water and wetlands policy from Madison, Ms.