Flood control alternatives, including the “One Lake” project for the Pearl River in Jackson, have been out of the spotlight, under technical review by the Army Corps of Engineers for nearly four years since scoping meetings were held in the fall of 2013. When the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and engineering studies are published late in 2017 or early 2018, it will signal the last practical chance for public comment/input until the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works makes a decision.
The Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District (the District) offered four flood control alternatives in 2013 during project scoping: levees and floodwalls, non-structural measures, channel improvements, and a lake development. Among these alternatives, only the lake development has its own public relations campaign thanks to John McGowan’s non-profit Pearl River Vision Foundation which has consistently promoted dredging and damming the Pearl River to create a 1500 acre lake. The Foundation has also partnered with the Drainage District to lobby Congress and the Mississippi Legislature to obtain funding for planning and construction. A public-private partnership like this one must adhere to public works spending rules, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to slant the administrative and legislative procedures their way to achieve a slam-dunk.
This public-private partnership has followed a strategy since 2007 to tip the scales toward the lake development alternative. In the 2007 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), Mississippi’s delegation got Congress to authorize $133 million for a Pearl River flood control project that could be handled outside of the usual Army Corps of Engineers public works process. Having the project operate under WRDA’s Section 211 rules allowed the sponsoring District to hand-pick its contractors, and self-fund and direct environmental studies and planning documents, with periodic Corps oversight. The 2007 WRDA language for this project also narrowed the study area to Rankin and Hinds Counties in the vicinity of Jackson. Restricting the extent of the study area controlled costs, but this move could back-fire when people on the coast inevitably ask why the studies don’t look far enough downstream at negative impacts to flow.
This issue has troubled the marine resource management agencies and oyster industries in both Mississippi and Louisiana. The study area problem was criticized during scoping in 2013.
After public scoping meetings in 2013, at the start of the study process, the District took a vote to select the lake project, over all the other options, as the locally preferred alternative. Then, the District and Foundation began “self-funding” their environmental and engineering studies. The Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, which features a lake as the centerpiece if its Vision 2022 plan, provided money. In 2013, lake sponsors were able to talk Governor Bryant’s Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) into a $1 million Industrial Incentive Finance Fund Program grant. MDA spends the taxpayers’ money, so “self-funding” here means taxpayer-funded. Some taxpayers live downstream. Given the choice, they wouldn’t knowingly help fund a flood control study by an agency that already voted on a lake and dam - the most environmentally disruptive choice - as its preferred option.
To this list of manipulations, add two more special favors that the lake promoters arranged for themselves this past year. In Congress, the 2016 version of WRDA required the Corps of Engineers to give “expedited review” to the environmental and engineering studies to fast-track a decision by the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works.
Also, this public-private partnership lobbied the 2017 Mississippi Legislature to enact a tax bill, H.B. 1585, to fund construction of urban flood control projects. It gives a flood control district the authority to tax “property that is directly or indirectly benefitted” by a project. The interpretation of this law is anybody’s guess, but its “benefit” language is broad, and spreads a wide net for taxing property owners for bond debt service within a district.
The Drainage District and Pearl River Vision Foundation have friends in Washington and Jackson, and have bent the federal and state public works processes toward a lake development that may or may not reduce flooding, but would be a triumph of cronyism. Dredging and damming the Pearl is an economic development project being sold as flood control. Unfortunately, the lake option will invite accelerated development in the river’s floodplain, compounding future flood management challenges. The special treatment at the state and federal levels wouldn’t happen if this project was only about flooding. Beware the slam-dunk. To write Drainage District Director Gary Miller, visit the website OneRiverNoLake.com
Andrew Whitehurst is Gulf Restoration Network's water program director and focuses on water and wetland issues in Mississippi.