Right now, local and state government sponsors want to dam Big Cedar Creek in order to build two lakes in George County. The sponsors of this project include the George and Jackson County Board of Supervisors and the Pat Harrison Waterway District.
These agencies hired Pickering Engineering to write up and justify the lake plans in a wetland fill application to the Mobile Corps of Engineers District. It has been hard to discern the true purpose behind the lakes. Justifications for the project are varied: supplementing the river to provide adequate industrial water supply in droughts, creating lake-based recreation and development, and providing drinking water. George County has long wanted its own recreational lake, but in the application and supporting documents, the lakes and accompanying development are styled as value-added amenities needed to help the river survive low flows during droughts. This sleight of hand conveniently glosses over the Pascagoula River’s floodplain ecology that is well adapted to endure periodic, severe drought conditions.
While reading the documents supporting the Corps application for the tributary dams and lakes, one of the sponsoring government agency’s many justifications stood out: the engineers at the Pickering firm make the case not just for supplementing the river with new storage lakes, but also argue for expanded future industrial water withdrawals whether or not there is a drought. In doing this, Pickering uses future climate uncertainty, refinery jobs, energy security (gasoline refinery production) and even national defense as reasons to allow dams on these tributaries to “bank” water against future droughts. It’s a shotgun approach.
Protecting the Jackson County Port Authority’s ability to expand a water withdrawal permit on the Pascagoula even during droughts may be at the heart of the argument to build lakes on Big Cedar Creek. Water is already available for release from Okatibbee Reservoir in Lauderdale County to send water down to the lower Pascagoula River when the river’s flow measures less than 917 cubic feet per second at Merrill, in George County. The last time a release was ordered to help the river was in 2000. Predictably, Pickering’s hydrology experts created flow and climate models concluding that Okatibbee releases don’t provide enough water - only new water storage lakes can “fix” the river in a drought.
The wetland fill application for the lakes includes an appendix of relevant documents. One is a Southeast Regional Water Supply Project Application to EPA from 2012 (Appendix A-2 p.38). There, Pickering states: “although the year 2000 release aided in augmenting flow along the Pascagoula River during a month-long drought, it did not and most likely would not provide sufficient volumes of water to allow full utilization of the JCPA’s (Jackson County Port Authority) permitted 100 mgd (million gallon per day) [withdrawal] at the Cumbest Bluff intake.”
The statement above helps cut away some clutter to reveal what may be the main reason for the lakes: expanded industrial water withdrawal. The Port Authority’s water transfer pipelines connect the withdrawal pumps on the Pascagoula River in north Jackson County to the Port at Bayou Casotte, home of the Chevron Pascagoula Refinery and other heavy industries. The Port Authority is now permitted by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to take as much as 100 million gallons per day, although at present, they pump less than 40 million gallons per day for industrial users. Pickering Engineering, hired by the George and Jackson County Supervisors and Pat Harrison Waterway District are using data from the Port and its industrial customers’ water use to make industry’s argument for expanding the volume of Pascagoula River water withdrawn, even during droughts. So far, the industrial water users themselves have made no public demands for new lakes or new water supplies to augment river flow, and they probably will remain silent on the subject.
It isn’t surprising that state and local government agencies want to give cover to the industries that use the water. Chevron Pascagoula refinery and other industrial water users at the Port provide jobs to the local economy. If the state agencies and local governments promote, fund and build these lakes, the industries that use the water risk nothing and their plant managers will sleep better during droughts. The Chevron Pascagoula refinery has worked hard on its “green” reputation. For most of a decade, it sponsored Envirothon, a Mississippi high school environmental science quiz contest on wildlife, soils and aquatics. In 2002, Chevron helped found the Pascagoula River Basin Alliance (PRBA) along with Mississippi Power Company, the Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, state resource agencies and local river conservationists. Fragmenting the Pascagoula basin with tributary dams was not a PRBA priority at its founding.
We’d like to know if Chevron and other port industries mind being used by Pickering and the sponsors to justify building water supply lakes on Big Cedar Creek. Can industry and the state figure out a different water supply plan that avoids submerging 1200 acres of wetlands and forest, destroying fish and wildlife habitat, submerging farm land and changing stream dynamics in sections of Big Cedar Creek downstream of two new, high-hazard dams?
Andrew Whitehurst, of Madison, Ms. is GRN's Water Program Director and works on Mississippi water and wetland issues.