GRN presents to La. Legislative Pearl River Task Force Meeting

State Representative Malinda White of Bogalusa invited Gulf Restoration Network and The Pearl Riverkeeper to make a presentation at the Louisiana State Capitol about our concerns over the One Lake project on the Pearl River. The Pearl River Task Force is a joint legislative committee run by the Louisiana Senate Committee on Natural Resources. Senator Sharon Hewitt presided over the committee. On the day we went, December 13th, the committee heard first from the Vicksburg Corps District on the decommissioning of the Pearl River Navigation Canal and sills downstream of Bogalusa La. The Corps is requiring a transfer fee of between $300,000 and $400,000 from the state or local governmental recipient before it turns over the keys. This bit of news was frustrating. Also, the Corps presenters offered no path forward for working together on the canal project handoff.

Glen Constant of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service talked about some progress being made in planning the removal of the large log jam in the Pearl downstream of Bogalusa. Apparently, the log jam can be approached from the Louisiana side of the Pearl on USFWS Bogue Chitto Refuge access roads, so there was some hopeful news from one federal agency. The log jam will have to be removed gradually with tracked equipment like bulldozers and backhoes.

Next the committee heard a flood plain management study update from Arcadis, a consulting firm hired by the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA). Arcadis is doing a comparative study of floodplain management frameworks from around the U.S. to see what kind of a model Louisiana could possibly adopt for floodplain management in its river systems statewide.An attorney from the state AG’s office gave a summary of the Red River and Sabine River interstate water management district compacts as possible models for such an effort on the Pearl River.

Finally, I spoke on Gulf Restoration Network’s concerns about the One Lake project and Abby Braman, our wonderful new Pearl Riverkeeper, gave a summary of her group’s activities – such as the successful Pearl Clean Sweep in September that pulled 37,000 pounds of trash out of the river with the work of over 1000 volunteers. She also focused on the injustice that is imposed on the downstream reaches of the river if another lake is built to serve metro Jackson’s specific needs for flood control and economic development.

The One Lake project ignores that the Pearl is everyone’s river. What happens in Jackson on the Pearl does not stay in Jackson. The disruptions to flow, water quality/quantity and the creation of a political interest group around the newly developed lake’s shore will not make things easier downstream for wildlife and fish habitats, river users, towns or industries.

The full text of my presentation to the committee follows:GRN’s remarks to the Pearl River Task Force Meeting Dec 13, 2017. Louisiana State Capitol

At the mouth of the Pearl River, and in the coastal estuaries and marshes where Louisiana and Mississippi grow oysters, the big question is how much less fresh water flow will result from an additional dam and new lake on the Pearl River in Jackson? St. Tammany Parish engineers have looked at this additional 1500 acre lake and have written in comments that evaporation can reduce flows by as much as 90 cubic feet per second. Their concerns include saltwater intrusion, including effects on shallow drinking water wells, loss of habitat, loss of commercial fisheries and risk to water quality from permit exceedances from the Bogalusa paper mill.Looking at the project map, the orange edges of the lake map represent over 1000 acres of low land -wetlands and riverbank- that will be filled and elevated with dredge spoil so development can happen around this lake.

Once development happens on the filled riverbanks, this lake will gain a bunch of stakeholders who have a strong interest in keeping water at desired levels. Lakes develop their own interest groups as people and businesses invest money in building on waterfront property. These interest groups have their own ideas about where the water level should be, regardless of the purpose declared when the lake was built. We see this now on the Ross Barnett Reservoir which has disrupted and degraded the lower Pearl River for 53 years.The flood control aspect of this dredging project comes from widening about seven miles of the urban section of the river from about 250 feet to 2000 feet, dredging it to about 15 feet deep, removing floodplain forest and backwater wetlands, and armoring the banks to get more water to move through Jackson more efficiently and without either causing back-flooding up urban creeks, or overtopping existing levees.

The large volumes of water that must be managed and passed through Jackson come from discharges from the Ross Barnett Dam flood gates when there is significant rainfall in the upper Pearl River watersheds.In an extremely dry year when rainfall is low and in yearly normal low flow months, a second lake on the Pearl River will make a difference in water quantity at the lower end of the Pearl System – in Lake Borgne, the Western Miss. Sound and in the Hancock Co., St. Bernard and St. Tammany Parish marshes and estuaries.These oyster growing areas and marshes need moderate salinities, maintained by adequate fresh water flow from the Pearl. Mississippi has good oyster reefs in the Western Mississippi Sound, and Louisiana has good reefs in and around Lake Borgne that are vulnerable to stress and predation during periods of critical low river flow. More damming and lake building on the Pearl will bring additional and cumulative impacts.

One aspect of this project that we find troubling is the fact that the Corps of Engineers is not doing the studies. The sponsoring agency got permission from the Corps to self-fund their draft feasibility study and their draft Environmental Impact Statements (DEIS). In this case, Section 211 of the federal Water Resources Development Act allows the local sponsor to hire their own contractors to produce these documents, but the Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District still has oversight and must approve the final plan documents.Congress in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) authorized $133,000,000 for flood control improvements along the Pearl River in Jackson whether these involve a lake or levees or something else. The money has not been appropriated yet, and $133 million would cover less than the full costs of building a lake, so more money from the state and/or federal government is needed.

The sponsoring flood control district has bonding authority which it would have to use to undertake any large project. The sponsor – the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District is a two-county levee board.The Corps should not approve this project if the studies are poorly done or if they don’t adequately answer all the questions about what happens at the lower end of the Pearl system.

In late 2017 or early 2018, we will be looking for the release of the feasibility study and environmental impact statements. There will be a 45 or 60 day public comment period. Around 2-3 weeks after release, there will be public meetings in Jackson, and on the Miss. Coast, probably in Bay St. Louis, and possibly in Mandeville. People can ask questions and make comments at these meetings and I hope all relevant agencies will prepare comments about the project that raise all the questions needed to protect the interests of the state.

Two resolutions have been made against this project, one by the St. Tammany Parish Council and one by the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources. CPRA and LDWF wrote comment letters critical of this project in 2013 during the scoping process. I included these and the St. Tammany Parish Council’s engineering department letter in your materials today.It would be great to see other resolutions against the project. A Coastal Zone Consistency Review has been requested by La. Oyster Task Force chairman Tesvich. If a Master Plan consistency review is possible, that should be done as well. Louisiana agencies provided strong scoping comments and have generally been vigilant about this project.

I encourage you to keep up this vigilance at the Parish and State levels during the EIS process because this river is a shared resource that needs to be defended against more damming. It deserves restoration and all the consideration you can give it.Thank you for allowing me to come speak to you today.

Andrew Whitehurst is GRN’s Water Program Director

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