Developers Try Again for a Lake on the Pearl River in Jackson

Oxbow lake along Pearl River in Lefleur’s Bluff State Park, Jackson, Ms. Lake project would dredge this place.Jackson, Mississippi, businessman John McGowan has regrouped in the years since his Two Lakes project was deemed by the Corps of Engineers to be too expensive and unfeasible. He reduced the project’s scope to one lake and renamed his Two Lakes Foundation as the Pearl River Vision Foundation. The lake project is said to be for flood control and involves dredging, deepening and widening the Pearl River in Jackson to about 5 times its current width. One cross-channel weir, or low-head dam will impound the river surface at about 260 feet above sea level to create a 1,500 acre lake between Lakeland Drive (Hwy. 25) and the Interstate 20 Pearl River bridge near Richland, MS.Proponents say this lake will reduce flood water levels in the urban reach of the river. Presumably this will happen through spreading out the flood water in a deeper, much wider channel. The Pearl’s most destructive floods were in 1979 and 1983. Rather than accept a Corps of Engineer’s plan for levees, McGowan and other influential people have pressed for a flood control design that will also allow development of lakeshore real estate. They have resisted levees and promoted the lake idea since the Corps’ last levee plan in 1996. The Foundation is partnering with the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District (Levee Board) in sponsoring the lake project. McGowan’s allies include current Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann who served previously on the Two Lakes Foundation board, and Levee Board member and real estate businessman Leland Speed who directed the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) under Governor BarbourLost in the push for flood control in Jackson is the fact that the Pearl River is in need of restoration.Ever since the building of the 32,000 acre Ross Barnett Reservoir in the 1960’s, the sections of the river immediately downstream of the dam have suffered from bank collapse due to the high energy discharges from the dam in Winter and Spring floods. The Pearl is a powerful river when the Barnett floodgates are wide open, and a new lake downstream will not change that fact. The Reservoir’s legacy includes a down-cutting channel below the Barnett dam, bank erosion, and downstream shoaling and sedimentation through six counties. Two federally-listed (threatened) species, Gulf sturgeon and the Ringed sawback turtle, have habitat in the lake project area, and substantial habitat destruction will be required if the river channel through Jackson is widened and dredged for a lake. Mitigation for lost habitat and wetlands are major issues.New questions exist about evaporative loss of fresh water from 1,500 additional acres of lake surface area. The cumulative effects of evaporation from this lake and the much larger Barnett Reservoir need consideration. Evaporation affects the volume of fresh water reaching the Mississippi and Louisiana marshes, Lake Borgne and the Mississippi Sound. Oyster beds and marshes in coastal estuaries need adequate fresh water. East of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the Pearl River has the fourth largest fresh water discharge to the Gulf, and has a greater discharge than all the Lake Pontchartrain basin rivers combined. The Pearl River is an important source of fresh water that moderates coastal salinities in two states.Also, if the lake is built, riverbank areas of LeFleur’s Bluff State Park (formerly Riverside Park) in Jackson will be dredged. LeFleur’s Bluff is Mississippi’s only urban state park and is well used. It is designated by the Audubon Society as an Important Bird Area (IBA) due to its varied bottomland and swamp habitats. The park offers R/V camping, primitive camping for scouts, as well as trails, picnic pavilions and three oxbow lakes that will become open water if the lake is built. These lakes, swamps and wetlands on the park’s 400 acres have served for the last 30 years as the outdoor classroom for the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. The Museum was founded in the 1930’s and moved to the park from downtown Jackson in 2001, partly so staff could more easily use park environments in educational programs for children.A new twist is that the Levee Board entered into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Vicksburg Corps of Engineers District under Section 211 of The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 1996. The Levee Board is sponsoring and paying for the Feasibility Study and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the lake (FS/DEIS). The process isn’t run by the Corps of Engineers, but must still satisfy all federal law requirements, including compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. Private firms are performing all the engineering and environmental studies. A public meeting for scoping is scheduled for Thursday August 29th 6-8 p.m. at the Mississippi Agriculture Museum auditorium 1150 Lakeland Drive Jackson 39216. Parking is in the Miss. Sports Hall of Fame lot. A similar meeting has been reqeusted by St. Tammany Parish and Hancock County residents so their concerns can be heard close to home. Another public meeting about the analysis of alternatives will follow later in the Fall of 2013. In the NEPA process, only a few opportunities exist for public input, so people with questions about the project need to comment at the proper time. For questions to the sponsors about the meeting or process, Dallas Quinn of the Foundation can be reached at 601-613-6051 or and Keith Turner, Levee Board attorney, can be reached at 601-965-1958 or kturner@watkinseager.comAndrew Whitehurst is Assistant Director of Science and Water Policy at Gulf Restoration Network and covers Mississippi Water and Wetland Issues. He lives and works in Madison, Ms.

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