Chrissy Schuengel lived on Bayou LaCroix road in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi for more than twenty years and had never seen her back yard flood severely during normal rainfall. That changed in 2007 when Hancock County Development LLC began cutting drainage canals through land north of her property line and interfering with the natural drainage patterns on the adjoining forested wetlands. Without any permits, the development company began transforming a wet pine savanna by cutting canals and ditches, aimed to drain and develop parcels for the “City of Stennis” - a mixed residential and office project.
After these drainage alterations, ordinary rainfall events now produced a wall of water, inundating yards and pastures in Chrissy’s rural community. Chrissy asked for help from Gulf Restoration Network regarding the unpermitted wetland destruction. In 2007, the Corps of Engineers ordered the developers to stop digging and Gulf Restoration Network partnered with Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC) to file a Clean Water Act citizen suit on Chrissy’s behalf. Four years later in February 2011 a final ruling was made in our suit, ordering that both the drainage patterns and the wetlands be restored.
Fast forward another five years to 2016. A significant portion of the illegally developed land directly north of Chrissy’s property was deeded in perpetuity to the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain, (LTMCP) so that after restoration it will be managed as a functional wetland forever.
Back-filling the canals and planting the disturbed sites with appropriate trees has ensured that the site will again store and retain stormwater. This will help protect the Schuengel Family and other residents along Bayou LaCroix Road from the kind of flooding they saw in 2007. This May, a site visit was arranged to inspect the restoration work performed by the Land Trust’s contractors.
The filling of the canals required bulldozers to move spoil banks and remediate what other heavy equipment had done in 2007. When the spoil dirt berms were pushed back into the canals, native wetland plant seeds were uncovered. By 2016, these plants have grown and spread to cover the canal scars. Additional plantings of native tree species such as cypress, red maple, and black and tupelo gum have taken root. The former canal sites look remarkably better. But most importantly, Chrissy hasn’t seen the water cover her yard or pastures during ordinary rains and her soil isn’t constantly saturated these days.
This wetland restoration made a big difference to Chrissy and her neighbors who have seen floods abate, but it also serves as an object lesson about why wetlands are important. The land is so flat in this part of Hancock County that small changes to land contours have a large impact on gravity drainage patterns.
There was a notable sequence to what happened at the Stennis City development site: 1) For years, and without much fanfare, the adjacent wetlands stored water from normal rainfall and existing small streams moved it west to the upper drainages of Bayou LaCroix; 2) After digging canals and disrupting these wetlands, alarming flooding incidents happened after normal rainfall as runoff was concentrated and delivered directly south via the new canals; and 3) the wetland soils, land contours and vegetation were restored and the flooding problem has been greatly decreased.
This was a very expensive way for land developers to learn what ecologists already know about how wetlands function, but it was fortunate that restoration in this case was relatively straightforward. GRN depended on skilled litigation by TELC, Chrissy’s participation as a witness for legal standing in the Clean Water Act Citizen Suit, and on the Land Trust’s willingness to receive ownership of the property in the lawsuit settlement, hire experienced contractors like Jim Kelly and Barry Vittor, and manage the restoration. GRN alumni Jeff Grimes and Casey DeMoss Roberts began working with Chrissy back at the beginning of this long process, and they share the successful outcome after nine years.
People forced to live with the consequences of reckless environmental management decisions of the “City of Stennis Development” type feel their effects uniquely on a deep visceral level. The flooding situation has improved for her, but the whole experience over nine years has also taken a toll. Chrissy says, “I don't think anyone could ever possibly realize how much something like this affects every aspect of your life until they have been through it themselves. Even now, knowing the problem is being corrected and that things have gotten better, I will always live in fear of what could possibly happen again if things were to ever change for any reason”.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's Water Program Director, working on Mississippi water and wetland policy issues from Madison, Ms.