The St. Tammany Parish Council hosted the 2015 Pearl River Basin Watershed Conference in their chambers in Mandeville on March 17th. This was a meeting led by the Louisiana and Mississippi offices of the National Weather Service (NWS). There were very good presentations and discussions of Pearl River flood forecasting and emergency management operations between the two state NWS offices and the other agencies responsible for flood management. Handling Pearl River floods was the centerpiece of the conference, but presentations were also given by United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Vicksburg District of the United States Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), Naval Oceanography at Stennis Space Center, and the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District – the agency responsible for Ross Barnett Dam operations on the Pearl River north of Jackson.
The meeting revealed some very hopeful news on some fronts for the Pearl River: there are discussions ongoing among St. Tammany Parish, LDWF and the Vicksburg Corps over a donation of the Pearl River Barge Canal, locks and associated cross channel sills to the state of Louisiana. The only way that management of the locks, canal and sills can change is if the Corps cedes authority over the 57 year old project which hasn’t moved barges in 20 years. The sills could even be removed so that migrating fish could reach nearly a hundred miles of river that has been blocked for decades. Also, a Lower Pearl River Ecosystem Study Commission was begun in 2014 by Louisiana State Senator A.G. Crowe so that research, restoration and management of the Pearl River as an ecological asset can grow. Membership is from Louisiana at this time, but inclusion of the whole Pearl Basin, including membership from Mississippi, on the Commission is envisioned. Bathymetric and hydraulic modeling is being done for St. Tammany Parish by the Stennis Space Center’s Navy hydrologists and scientists to develop a better understanding of how the lower river handles floods and storm surges.
Many hopeful things seem to be happening on the Lower Pearl. Meanwhile, up in Jackson, Mississippi, business interests and the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District are still trying to sell their new lake and dam idea as flood control for Jackson. The District’s Board attorney and a representative from the Pearl River Vison Foundation - the project’s main promoters - were present at the conference and were given a lukewarm welcome. They received the most pointed questions heard at the conference or the public meeting that took place later that night at Boyet Middle School in Slidell. The questioning of the Rankin-Hinds District representative at the night meeting was stopped short by the moderator before it devolved into open hostility when the Jackson guests tried to answer questions about the underlying reason they want to build a lake rather than another type of flood control project for the river.
That night the Rankin-Hinds District’s attorney, Keith Turner, said: “Flood control comes first, anything after that is gravy.” The crowd hearing him in the school’s cafeteria was composed of St. Tammany property owners along the Pearl River who clearly suspected that lakeside or riverfront value-added economic development is the main course and not just the gravy with regard to this project. They were clearly suspicious of a new lake and yet another constituency for the Pearl’s water upstream, particularly when businesses and investors up the river are expecting to profit from further alteration of the river. St. Tammany Parish residents are worried about the project’s effects on flow, flooding and on their property on the Lower Pearl River.