GRN Lower Pearl Swamp Media Tour

GRN arranged a swamp tour on November 16th for members of the Louisiana and coastal Mississippi print and television media at Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours in Slidell, Louisiana. Our reason was simple: To shine critical light on the “One Lake” plan to create another lake and dam on the Pearl River in the name of flood control. We wanted to show that it is destructive, regressive and will impact the lower Pearl River in ways that other flood control options don’t.

Our host was Captain Paul Trahan, owner of Dr. Wagner’s Tours, who narrated an afternoon trip on the West Pearl River for our invited guests. We invited people from the upper and lower reaches of the Pearl River to come, take a ride and talk about both the hopeful things happening recently on the Pearl, and about the threat from more damming upstream in Jackson.With us were Jackson attorney Jayne Buttross and Dr. Cathy Shropshire, retired Director of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation. From the Bogalusa and Washington Parish region were Louisiana State Representative Malinda Brumfield White, Louisiana Senator Beth Mizell and Gary Parker a retired industrial electrician with six decades of practical knowledge about the river. Rounding out the lower river were Supervisor Greg Shaw from Hancock County, and Danny Zechenelly, public information officer from St. Tammany Parish Government.

I pointed out some of the restoration projects that are planned or ongoing in the Lower Pearl River: The decommissioning and eventual removal of the sills that fill the Pearl River Navigation Canal just downstream of Bogalusa, and the $50 million BP shoreline protection, oyster-bottom and marsh restoration project just east of the mouth of the river at Heron Bay in Hancock County, Ms. Paul Trahan took us up two nearby tributaries to the West Pearl River, and described the habitat of mixed Tupelo gum and cypress forest, emphasizing that the variation in river flow and water level dictate everything in the annual cycle of life of these forests along the Lower Pearl. He said his main concern about another dam upstream is a decrease in flow during the Pearl’s annual low-flow season which can run from July through November, or until winter cold fronts bring renewed pulses of high water.

Natural or man-made factors can decrease river flow in that annual period, allowing more salt water to work its way up the Pearl River in a salt wedge – a layer of higher density salt water that rides along the river bottom with tidal movement and pushes upstream, against river flow when that flow is weak. Too much salt water intrusion, lasting too long each season, will continue to change the ecology of the forests from fresh water swamps to transitional brackish wetlands. That means the Tupelo gum and cypress forest we saw would gradually die and be replaced my more salt tolerant plant and tree species. In fact, this process is ongoing.

Salt water intrusion has been occurring on the lower Pearl, and Paul and many others don’t want it to accelerate due to reductions in fresh water flow caused by more upstream dams. Choosing another flood control alternative for Jackson can avoid making things worse on the lower Pearl. What happens upstream has consequences in Paul’s back yard.In a river’s watershed, there is a finite amount of rainfall able to be captured each year. Dams and the lakes behind them withhold water, and in doing so they evaporate more water than the rivers from which they are created. Thus, dams waste water while they store it and that was what Paul addressed in his commentary as he narrated our river tour.

The large Ross Barnett Reservoir dam on the Pearl River, in existence since 1963, isn’t a flood control reservoir because its dam is not sufficiently tall or massive. A new lake and dam proposed in urban Jackson (the One Lake plan) would be a river modification, downstream of the Ross Barnett Reservoir, conceived to dredge the Pearl’s channel deeper and wider as a way to transmit reservoir releases more efficiently through Jackson. But in doing so, this widened river section would act as all lakes including the Barnett Reservoir do, and increase overall evaporation of water by sending it into the atmosphere – and wasting it. The new dam and lake would also add an additional set of floodgates to the Pearl. Significantly, development around an urban lake’s shores would add a constituency of residents and businesses wanting a say in how those floodgates operate to release water downstream.

Most of the people in the boat on the tour have seen how the Ross Barnett Reservoir has dictated what happens on their lower Pearl River over the last 54 years. Building a new amenity lake for real estate development in the name of flood control will only add more political voices around that lake who want a voice in how the water gets managed. Most of this development would also be within the existing levee system, so the lake would encourage new development on filled wetlands in the river’s floodplain! These days, even the Army Corps of Engineers has come around and is trying not to encourage more building in floodplains. Much is at stake along the Lower Pearl if another dam and lake are installed on the river in Jackson.

The lake developers have been very quiet about the fate of the lower river and flow problems that their project could create. There has been an air of “trust us everything’s gonna be fine” in the very few communications that the project sponsors, the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District and the Pearl River Vision Foundation, have released since the fall of 2013. Scoping comments in 2013 from downstream interests including Louisiana resource management agencies, non-profit environmental groups, and St. Tammany Parish Government all asked that flow and effects on salinity in the estuaries of Lake Borgne, Hancock County, and the Western Mississippi Sound be modeled and studied to determine what level of harm these area’s oyster and fin-fish resources might face from a new dam upstream.

Mississippi’s own Commission on Marine Resources passed a resolution in 2014 against this project on the Pearl. The Mississippi Governor’s Oyster Council 2015 final report discussed the need to educate decision makers on the impact to coastal waters from major upstream fresh water depleting projects in its section on “Oysters in the Environment.” Oysters need moderate salinities to grow, and river flow mixes with salt water in estuaries to provide the proper salinity ranges. Reducing river flow means higher salinity waters in the oyster growing areas – a condition that results in higher mortality on oyster reefs due to predation and disease.The State of Mississippi knows exactly what’s at stake it seems.

So… the questions remain: “Why is the state allowing this project to move forward? Also, “Why did the Governor in 2013 allow his Mississippi Development Authority to provide a $1 million industrial development grant to help fund the project’s environmental studies?”Mississippi knows better, so why isn’t it doing better? This is a question that can be asked about the Pearl River “One Lake” project in Jackson and so many other things in this state.

Downstream interests, including those on the tour boat with Captain Trahan, are watching for the release, later this year or early 2018, of the draft Environmental Impact Statement and draft feasibility studies for this project. However, you don’t have to wait till the studies come out. You can click on and send a comment letter to the Corps and the sponsors opposing this project, now.

Andrew Whitehurst is GRN’s water program director and works on Mississippi wetland and water pollution issues.

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