Louisiana Questions “One Lake” Project in Last of Public Meetings

Last week two things happened to place the One Lake Project under more public scrutiny. First, on Thursday Aug 16th, the attorney and contractors for the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood Control and Drainage District, involved in the writing of the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the One Lake Project, went to Baton Rouge. They were invited there by Senator Sharon Hewitt and the members of the Joint Senate House Lower Pearl River Ecosystem Task Force to make a presentation about the proposed Pearl River lake dredging project. The Task Force has agency members from LDEQ, CPRA, LDWF, LDOT, and LDNR plus Chairwoman Sen. Sharon Hewitt, Rep. Malinda White, Sen. Beth Mizell, Perry Talley from the Washington Parish Council and Gina Campo who represents St. Tammany Parish President Brister.

On Thursday morning during the presentation, Senator Hewitt began asking Drainage District attorney Keith Turner to pause and let her get clarifications and ask questions about adequate river flow to the Parishes and Counties along the Lower Pearl. Representative Malinda White from Bogalusa focused her questions on the cumulative impact of a new lake with the Ross Barnett Reservoir on bank stability, and further asked why the State of Louisiana since 1965 hasn’t had an official voice in Ross Barnett Reservoir operations. Senator Beth Mizell of Franklinton focused on the inconsistencies and weakness of the public notice process. All of the presentation is on the Senate’s website available here. Also the BR Advocate had a story last week.

Second, the US Fish and Wildlife Service published its comment letter on the lake project’s DEIS on August 16th. The Service named it the most environmentally damaging alternative and made the suggestion that the levee alternative be re-examined in combination with some channel modifications that fall short of actually damming the river. The Service identified the massive loss of forested riverside wetlands- almost 1900 acres – three square miles – as one of the worst problems with the plan to dredge and widen the river to impound it at 258 feet above sea level. Ironically, such an option was part of the array of alternatives during project scoping in 2013, but it was dropped by the time the District published its 2018 draft EIS for comment this summer.

The draft EIS offers a “no action” alternative, a lake alternative for $350 million and two other alternatives that appear to be set up as straw-men to be knocked down on a cost comparison: floodplain buyouts at $2 billion, and levees for $750 million.St. Tammany Parish engineer Dr. deEtte Smythe of the St. Tammany environmental permitting department presented her comments for the Parish on the project to Senator Hewitt’s Task Force on Monday in Baton Rouge at the State Capitol. She disputed the sponsor’s claims that low flows would not be made worse by the lake project.

One of her main points is that if you look at 10th percentile flows in the USGS flow data set for the Pearl from 1960 onward, using the sponsor’s own evaporation estimates and subtract evaporation loss from the 10th percentile flow values, then the river still goes below the critical low flow mark in most of the dry months (summer-fall) of the year. The critical flow – the absolute floor for low flow- is the requirement that the Savannah Street sewage plant in Jackson have at least 227 cfs (cubic feet/second) of river flow available so the sewage effluent mixes with adequate amounts of fresh water to avoid violations of its Mississippi DEQ Clean Water Act discharge permit. Subtract the sponsor’s own evaporation losses from the 10th percentile for flow and there are plenty of times in the past flow records that the river has not reached this minimum flow.

All we have to predict the future flows on the river is its past performance, and it is likely that with a warmer climate, the low flow marks are going to be a downward moving target.The biggest question that came out the Baton Rouge meetings was whether the Lower Pearl is protected by the existing minimum flow procedures governing the Ross Barnett Reservoir Dam’s flood gates discharging into the Pearl. And the wisdom of adding another lake to this existing situation was questioned strongly by Sen. Hewitt and Rep. White. It was interesting to see how Senator Hewitt, a chemical engineer, pressed the Drainage District on what really is one of the first principles of damming a river – the effect of damming on fresh water flow downstream. It seemed at times that the Drainage District people had not considered certain important aspects of this most basic question.

The Drainage District was not adept in their DEIS at being objective about what the data showed, and was clearly bent on using the flow statistics to try and prove their assertion, really their hope, that the lake project won’t affect downstream flow.The Reservoir Authority, in charge of the dam’s flood gates, was not in the room but their input seems vital to answer some of the questions raised by Senator Hewitt and Representative White on cross-state collaboration on Pearl River issues. We aren’t now set up with legislation in either state to contemplate a two-state joint effort on either water management or river restoration, but we need to move that way.

Both Baton Rouge sessions were eye-opening. It was clear that the lake sponsors from the Rankin Hinds Drainage District sponsoring the DEIS for the lake building had not initiated minimum flow conversations with the Reservoir Authority (The Pearl River Valley Water Supply District in Ridgeland). The Rankin Hinds Drainage District didn’t have the needed data and they didn’t have the authority to talk about flow agreements between their District and the Reservoir Authority, yet their project’s operation, combined with Reservoir operation of the Ross Barnett dam flood gates cleary will influence downstream flow through a new lake project and beyond. It was a pretty telling exchange about how bad this DEIS document actually is.

This was the first time anybody got to ask these people any tough questions in the open. Thanks to Senator Sharon Hewitt, Representative Malinda White, Senator Beth Mizell and the state resource agency staff members of the Joint Senate House Lower Pearl River Ecosystem Task Force for being so responsive to the river’s needs.

The last of the four public meetings on the lake project also happened on August 16th in Slidell. Senator Hewitt was there to introduce 13 elected officials who were present at the Slidell Municipal Auditorium from the towns and cities in St. Tammany and Washington Parishes. The rest of the meeting was hosted by the Rankin Hinds Drainage District and was the same song and dance as the meetings in Pearlington and Jackson. However, the tight rein that the Drainage District has kept on open questions of their plans and process was defeated a little this past week. Television reports on Fox 8 New Orleans from the night meeting showed angry homeowners grilling the Drainage District officials about the water levels they were to expect, casting doubt on how much useful information was available at the meeting. That theme is something that this week’s activities in Baton Rouge and Slidell illustrated.

This week, the Drainage District folks were pulled from behind their Ozian curtain and they appeared to be anything but great and powerful. Their appearance in Baton Rouge was the first time they had been exposed to tough questioning in the light of day, and they didn’t have much to offer in answer. The comment period closes on the Draft EIS on September 6th. GRN and many others are working on good incisive comments. The US Fish and Wildlife Service ended its Wildlife Coordination Act comment letter ended with the strong suggestion that the Drainage District go back to the drawing board and provide “greater details regarding plan formulation, design, operation, mitigation and adaptive management” in another draft of the EIS prior to finalizing. That sounds like this draft isn’t good enough. There is clear agreement on that from here to Baton Rouge to Slidell.

Andrew Whitehurst is Healty Gulf’s water program director and works on Mississippi wetland and water policy issues.

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