Mississippi Senator Brice Wiggins convened the Senate Ports and Marine Resources Committee in Jackson on Wednesday morning, October 21st, and the first item on the agenda was an examination of the Big Cedar Creek Dams and Lakes proposed for George and Jackson Counties. These lakes are being promoted to provide extra water to the Pascagoula River during droughts. Wiggins invited five witnesses to speak. First was Hiram Boone, Executive Director, of the Pat Harrison Waterway District that is proposing the lakes and has submitted a major wetland fill permit to the Mobile District Corps of Engineers. Senator Wiggins asked Boone if he was aware that Jackson County was now backing off of its support for the lakes. Boone replied “No.” Wiggins told Boone that industries he’s talked to in his Senate District in Jackson County are not saying that they need the lake project.
Mr. Boone admitted something I had suspected but had no way to prove: that industry indeed met with the lake promoters at the beginning of the process and said they needed the water from the lakes and that they would help support the lake project for the purpose of augmenting Pascagoula flows in drought conditions. So, as early as 2009, when George County government began shopping the lake idea around, they had support from industry that uses river water - not a surprise. That support is not evident now, but no industry has come out against the dam project so far. However, Wiggins hinted that the Jackson County government may officially withdraw support. Jackson County's Board of Supervisors declined Wiggins' invitation to the Senate hearing in a letter to him. Perhaps this news, along with what transpired in Wiggins' Committee room at the Capitol will allow the water using industries at the Port of Pascagoula to come out of the shadows and admit that this project is bad.
Mr. Boone also stated that no more studies or information were needed and he was satisfied that the project could proceed through the permitting process. However, this statement was contradicted completely by the next witness, Curt Craig of Pickering Engineering, the company hired by Boone to prepare the wetland fill application and the Environmental Assessment documents supporting it. Craig said there is not enough information to proceed with the project and that more data such as soil studies are needed, he also said that the habitat and endangered species studies and the wetland studies have been done a “high level” and that more complete detailed technical field work needed to be done on both wetlands and endangered species. Flooding the area with lakes would destroy several types of aquatic and terrestrial habitat. The application so far only identified Gopher tortoise habitat that would be lost in the lake footprint. Craig was asked if the tributary lakes project will change the river and he said, “It will change the river to some degree”, then added after a long pause, “we’re trying to enhance it.” Craig admitted to Senator Deborah Dawkins that his company has never conducted the permitting for a dam project, or built a dam.
Mark LaSalle, director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point testified that his organization was unaware of any good reasons, based on Pascagoula River ecology, to store Big Cedar Creek water in these tributary dams, and that such dams would jeopardize the Pascagoula’s unique status as the last free flowing river of its size in the lower 48 states. He talked about the value of nature-based tourism to Mississippi and said that the Audubon Center, which opened a wonderful new facility last week in Moss Point on a bayou connected to the Pascagoula River, is a part of that ecotourism economy.
Marine engineer Eric Richards of Pascagoula was the next witness to speak, and he first discussed the costs of the project outweighing the benefits. Richards said that in his opinion, these tributary lakes could do harm to the main stem of the Pascagoula. Richards cited the evaporation modeling and soil boring data presented by Pickering in the permit application materials, and said that from his reading of Pickering’s data, he believed these lakes could lose massive amounts of water to soil seepage into porous sands and from surface evaporation. He said that during all months and years of normal rainfall, during which time the lakes were not being used to direct extra flow to the Pascagoula river, they would waste water to soil seepage and that there would be significant evaporation from lake surfaces. He said that a portion of Cedar Creek's water that now flows to the river would be stopped short and lost to the river through these physical processes if lakes are dug and dams are constructed. Lakes could easily be a setback for the Pascagoula if they lose water.
Stan Flint from Pascagoula spoke last as an advocate for the river and as a representative of friends and businesses from Jackson County. He said that this project was “doomed from the start” because the project promoters didn’t include ordinary river users in Jackson County in the group of stakeholders they consulted when beginning to consider these lakes for this purpose. A sneak attack, begun outside public scrutiny won’t work, according to Flint. In short, he told the Senate Committee that these folks had messed with the wrong river and have gone about things the wrong way.
It was clear that Senator Wiggins has heard from many, many of his constituents in Jackson County and none of the comments have been in support of allowing this tributary dam project. Mr. Wiggins, at his Committee meeting, seemed to be telegraphing to everyone in the Committee room that this is not the right project for the purpose cited, and that the Pascagoula River doesn’t need this kind of help from the Pat Harrison Waterway District, George County, and Pickering Engineering.