In the lower Pearl River system of Mississippi and Louisiana, where the river forms the state boundary, there are long-awaited positive things happening. Approved and funded projects to study and restore river function and improve coastal habitats near the Pearl’s mouth are under way or planned in both states. This is why the news of a proposed new dam and lake project upstream in Jackson is so disheartening. The river is finally receiving some restoration attention at its lower end, and unfortunately but predictably, a private/public partnership is about to unveil plans for building another dam on it in Jackson which will make river management more complicated downstream. The Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District is sponsoring and studying the “One Lake” project, and the non-profit Pearl River Vision Foundation is raising private and public money for environmental impact studies, and running political interference for the project in Congress. Flood control for Jackson can be accomplished without building another dam and lake on the river. We will push back against the pro-damming crowd, but here is a look at the list of studies and restoration projects for the river and its coastal environments in both states.
In Mississippi some of the earliest funded projects from the BP oil spill settlement were focused on restoring acres of suitable hard bottoms for oyster reef restoration in the Western Mississippi Sound near the Pearl’s mouth. The Bayou Heron living shoreline project is using $50 million of BP Restoration money from the NRDA damage funds to protect shoreline, create new marsh and build more oyster bottoms, starting at the mouth of the Pearl River and going six miles east toward Bayou Caddy in Hancock County.
Two other projects, funded by BP restoration settlement money, will study hydrodynamics and salinities in the Western Mississippi Sound and model flow in the lower 60 kilometers of the Pearl River itself. These studies are being undertaken by MDEQ, Mississippi State University and engineering contractors. Being able to model the fresh water flow in the lower river and predict how its fresh water plume behaves is important in predicting salinities and oxygen levels in the coastal estuaries and passes. This knowledge is foundational to the success of the tens of millions of dollars-worth of oyster bottom and marsh creation work under way in the western Mississippi Sound and Lake Borgne.
The Louisiana Legislature created the Lower Pearl River Ecosystem Study Commission in 2014 to examine the conditions, needs and funding relative to protecting and preserving the lower river. Around that time, St. Tammany Parish government commissioned a lower Pearl River flow study by engineers and scientists at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The Parish needs the information to help model and predict water movement from river flooding and storm surges – which can happen simultaneously. The 2016 Congressional Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) authorized the transfer of the Pearl River Navigation Canal project, below Bogalusa, from the Army Corps of Engineers to the State of Louisiana so it can begin the process of removing sills that have obstructed channels for decades. Removing the sills would open up more river miles of Gulf sturgeon spawning habitat than any other restoration project under consideration now on any other river system in the five Gulf states! A dozen other fish species would benefit too.
There have been various state sponsored oyster reef restoration projects in Lake Borgne and Louisiana waters near the mouth of the Pearl River. The Louisiana CPRA master plan for coastal restoration has shoreline protection projects to slow erosion in the Biloxi Marsh complex- a large wetland area starved of fresh water which needs the Pearl River’s fresh water discharge to help keep salinity levels moderate at its northern limit. Louisiana and Mississippi state marine resource agencies are collaborating on beneficial use of navigational channel dredge spoil from Mississippi to rebuild eroded, subsided land along the Breton Sound exposed edge of the Biloxi Marshes of St. Bernard Parish. The Pearl’s seasonal flow is important for all these areas.
If you wonder why decision makers in either state would allow further damming of the Pearl River when so much ongoing and future restoration depends on enough fresh water at the right time, you are not alone. The Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources passed a 2015 resolution against further inland damming on the Pearl and other coastal rivers in Mississippi. The Louisiana Oyster Task force wrote a 2016 letter asking the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Secretary to perform a Coastal Zone Consistency Review of the Jackson “One Lake” project when the sponsors publish the project’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) later this summer. These agencies are clearly concerned.
Gulf Restoration Network and others will make the case that despite the Pearl system’s various sources of disruption, including the 53 year-old Ross Barnett Dam and Reservoir, there should be an open pathway for river restoration. The idea that Mississippi’s most impacted large coastal-plain river can be improved and that its water quality and physical problems can be addressed shouldn’t be a pipe dream. Good things are happening on the Pearl River and more can come. Tinkering with the river’s fresh water flow by allowing more damming will make this less likely. Decision makers in both states, Pearl River users, local governments, tourism and commercial fishing interests need to acknowledge this reality and act to protect the river.
Andrew Whitehurst is Gulf Restoration Network's Water Program Director and works on water and wetland issues from Madison, Ms.