A Lake in Disguise for George County?

Upland pine hillside seep with pitcher plants. The proposed lake would cover similar areas.The Mississippi Water Resources Conference was held in Jackson in early April. This annual conference is sponsored by Mississippi State University’s Water Resources Research Institute and features technical presentations on municipal, agricultural and industrial water use. The conference covers all sorts of water projects, including some that threaten streams and wetlands.One presentation focused on the George County Lake project. Promoters of a lake for the county have been at work for at least a decade. The current proposal for a 5,200 acre water supply lake would dam a yet undisclosed Pascagoula River tributary in George County. One deficiency of the earlier efforts to create a smaller recreational lake was the difficulty of providing adequate wetland mitigation. According to federal law, if a project destroys wetlands, that loss must be mitigated by creating, restoring or preserving wetlands in the same watershed. George County has numerous streams that originate as bayheads, seeps and bogs. Damming any suitable valley to create a lake would submerge many acres of these wetlands. The larger lake now being promoted would still need adequate wetland mitigation. George County has scaled-up the lake’s size while bringing in stakeholders from another county.The County has disguised its desire for a recreational lake by promoting it as a water supply for use in drought years when the Pascagoula River approaches minimum flow. The state must protect streams by halting permitted water withdrawal in the event that flows get too low to adequately support fish life. This has happened once in the last 12 years in the Pascagoula basin. The promoters say such a lake would support the future water needs of the industries of Jackson County to the south – mainly the Port of Pascagoula. However, if industry needs the water, it certainly hasn’t said so. Pitching a lake that the local government desires for economic and real estate development as a means of providing water for industry in a neighboring county is more about self-interest than altruism.George County is a place of contrasts – it has supported successful designations of four of the County’s waterways as state scenic streams: Black Creek, Red Creek, the Pascagoula and Escatawpa Rivers. Yet, now it wants a 5,200 acre lake that will change natural streams and their wetlands into a reservoir that can be tapped to provide for industrial needs downstream. In the face of increasingly variable rainfall due to climate change, lake promoters must be blindly hoping the drought/drawdown scenario won’t happen very often. A lake built for the purpose of supplying water can be drained completely if the need arises. Conflicts with downstream industry over water use can be anticipated when lakefront real estate becomes developed, and property owners resent shipping lake water downstream to a refinery or power plant or so a sewage treatment plant can have the proper dilution of its effluent.No information was presented at the conference on the lake’s likely effect on wetlands, stream or fish habitat, or on the annual water budget of the Pascagoula in years of normal rainfall (when the lake isn’t needed to augment water supply). Whether or not the lake’s water is needed, normal evaporation will transport vast quantities of water into the atmosphere that otherwise would contribute to natural streams. The Pascagoula has been praised as the last free flowing river of its size class in the lower 48 states. A new dam in its lower watershed would tarnish that distinction. The Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) has been actively promoting the damming of streams into lakes for real estate development. George County aside, lakes are being promoted by state government as a panacea for revenue-starved counties. This process needs to be watched and serious questions needed to be asked about whether such a lake is necessary at all. We believe the answer is probably “no.” Andrew Whitehurst is GRN’s Assistant Director of Science and Water Policy.

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