On April 7th the Pearl River in Louisiana and Mississippi was named to American Rivers’ list of the ten Most Endangered Rivers in the United States because of plans to create another dam and lake on the river in Jackson, Mississippi. A two-county drainage District has submitted a feasibility study and Environmental Impact Statement for the lake project to the Vicksburg Corps of Engineers District. The lake is the District’s preferred alternative for flood control. Because of the threat that comes from this project and because the Corps’ approval or disapproval will happen in 2015, Gulf Restoration Network and the Jackson Audubon Chapter nominated the river to the Most Endangered Rivers list with the support of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation.
All three groups were represented on April 7th when simultaneous press conferences were held on the banks of the Pearl River in both Mississippi and Louisiana. We convened in Lefleur’s Bluff State Park in Jackson and at the boat landing of Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours in Slidell. We discussed the threats to the river and downstream communities and habitats from further fragmentation by damming, decreased fresh water flow to the Mississippi Sound, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, wetlands and loss of public use. The state park’s riverbank, ridges and sloughs are threatened by the project which would dredge the banks and bed of the Pearl River over 7 miles in downtown Jackson.
The lake project is so clearly conceived for economic development purposes that the Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce Partnership cites the lake as the keystone development in its 10-year “Vision 2022” strategic plan, and doesn’t mention flood control in its vision statement. The strategic plan handles the lake this way: “The vision is to build a sought-after community on the banks of a new 1500 acre lake, located within minutes from homes and offices, in the heart of a region known for being a great place to live and work.”
The actual sponsor of the plan submitted to the Corps of Engineers is the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District. It is pitching flood control as the primary reason for dredging the Pearl River into a lake for floodwater conveyance through Jackson, and in public statements it isn’t pretending too hard that it is serious about any of the other flood control alternatives: levees or flood plain buyouts. So, is this about flood control, or is this about downtown development for Jackson? The scrambled message about this project leaves it open for wide-ranging criticism from many sides but mostly from downstream. The parties that are most concerned now are the St. Tammany Parish Council in Louisiana, and the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources. Both are voicing concerns relevant to having adequate river flows at the lower end of the Pearl River system if the river is dammed again. The Ross Barnett Reservoir and dam, nine miles north of downtown Jackson, have been around for 53 years.
The state of Mississippi is also giving mixed messages about what it is willing to do the Pearl River and the ecosystem it supports. The Pearl is one of the state’s two major Coastal Plain streams draining to the Mississippi Sound and Gulf. The Mississippi Development Authority is funding $1 Million of the Drainage District’s feasibility study for the lake project in Jackson which is biased toward damming the river. At the same time the state, through the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, is spending $50 Million on coastal restoration in Heron Bay, less than 2 miles east of the mouth of the Pearl River in Hancock County. This is the living shoreline, marsh and oyster reef restoration project funded by the early spending of Natural Resource Damage Assessment (Early NRDA) money that comes from the first damage settlements in the BP oil spill disaster.
The state cannot pretend that the fresh water from the Pearl isn’t vital to maintaining moderate salinities in the Mississippi Sound and to the success of this and other coastal restoration projects. The Pearl’s drainage basin is quite a bit larger than the Pontchartrain basin just to the west; so for Lake Borgne, The Rigolets and the Mississippi Sound, Pearl River fresh water discharge is dominant and vital to the health of the estuaries of the western Mississippi coast, including the Hancock County Marshes, and to those in southeastern Louisiana. This is one system despite state boundaries.
When Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant created The Governor’s Oyster Council earlier in 2015 to help rebuild the oyster sector of the seafood industry that has taken hits from hurricanes and the oil spill, many were hopeful that it was a signal that coastal issues in Mississippi were going to become much more important. State government in Jackson needs to acknowledge what its rivers actually do, and why they need more protection and consideration when economic development projects seek to alter them. Perhaps the appearance of one of its major rivers on a national list of endangered streams will provide some much needed focus.