One River- No Lake Coalition holds own Pearl River meeting

A Community Engagement Meeting on the flood control project for the Pearl River (One Lake and its sister alternatives) happened this past Tuesday night, April 24th in Jackson. The One River-No Lake Coalition held the meeting at the attractive Atrium room of the Smith Robertson Museum downtown two blocks west of the State Capitol. I was the presenter of a powerpoint talk on the issues and questions that the Coalition wanted to highlight.The final slide contained this question: Why should Congress fund a project to add a dam and new lake to the Pearl River when flood control options exist that don’t further fragment the river, don’t remove as many acres of protected habitat and are less objectionable to downstream interests?

The issues and questions I raised in the presentation were not new. I have been writing blogs and one-pagers about them and using them as talking points for the past four years. These points have been up and down the Pearl River with me and to Washington D.C and Baton Rouge. I have focused on wetland loss, habitat loss, evaporation from a new lake, threats to flow, discharge permits and coastal fishing interests. I’ve made the point that each lake as it develops will build a political constituency whose interests and wishes may not be in line with the needs for fresh water downstream on the river below the lake and dam project.

The one new piece of information I presented on Tuesday night involved summing up three points that river scientists from the United States Geological Survey raised at the Mississippi Water Resources Conference earlier in April in Jackson:How far down the river can a dam’s disruption to flow be detected?How sensitive are the fresh water needs of coastal marshes and bays to upstream damming?Can the coastal waters be so distant from the dam’s influence on the river that it can’t be detected?Some of the best river scientists in the country have identified these questions about the Pearl River. Until they are answered, more damming is not defensible.

The people in the room listened to the presentation and were polite and respectful of our format which asked them to submit written questions on notecards at the end rather than stand and speak. We told people in the seats that we were not the sponsoring agency for the flood control project, and were not fulfilling any due process duty in holding the meeting. The One River-No Lake Coalition is a loose association among Gulf Restoration Network, Pearl Riverkeeper, Jackson Audubon, The Mississippi Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club.

We held the kind of meeting about the flood control project on the Pearl River that we would like to see the lake sponsors, the City and the State attempt to hold when the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and other studies are finally published sometime this year. In showing them how such a meeting could look, we gave enough history and background to orient people about what has happened on the Pearl since the Ross Barnett Reservoir was completed in 1963 with respect to controlling and managing river flooding downstream of the dam’s floodgates and through the urban section of the stream in Jackson.

In 2013 when the scoping meetings were held by the project sponsor as they were required to do by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); the format they chose to explain the Draft Environmental Impact Statement study process was the open-house style meeting favored by the Corps of Engineers. The Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District and its non-profit fund raising partner, the Pearl River Vision Foundation took the lead from the Corps that often holds this type of meeting. These open house meetings divide and conquer those who are ready to come and address issues by giving comments that can be heard by those in attendance. At an open house meeting, you move from table to table, annotate maps, write your comments on pre-printed sheets or if you desire you can sit in front of a court reporter and hold forth on relevant subjects. Guests are not allowed to address the room and so cannot be heard by other meeting participants or by the meeting sponsors.This type of meeting gives agency staff much less heartburn than an open meeting. They hate to be yelled at, which sometimes happens, but agency and government staff also resent having to listen to complaints about what they propose for public spending. However, under the Administrative Procedures Act at either federal or state level, due process is provided by notice and an opportunity to be heard. Notice and comment procedures cover the due process rights that the state or U.S. Constitution provide. As agencies practice this, it isn’t a rock-solid guarantee, but the aspiration is to give adequate due process.

That August 2013 project scoping meeting by the Drainage District had issue tables set up around the perimeter of the auditorium at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum. People weren’t seated and addressed in a general way at the beginning and the meeting devolved into a loose, noisy cocktail party minus the cocktails. The one or two most important maps and charts were surrounded three- deep by meeting participants yelling over the noise to the engineers to try and get their questions heard. Think trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange or a Saturday night at Galatoire’s Restaurant in New Orleans. There was a variable din, you couldn’t hear yourself think, and eventually people went outside on the porch to escape the clutter and noise and to talk and visit with people they ran into from church or the neighborhood. Many cordial conversations happened that night, but very little information exchange happened about the lake project.

To steal from Randy Newman, people went in uninformed and went out the same way. (College men from LSU, go in dumb, come out dumb too is Randy’s line) As an LSU graduate (2X), I disagree with Mr. Newman but love his lyric just the same.I think that in a way, it was exactly the kind of meeting the sponsors wanted because they got to check the meeting off of their NEPA list of requirements to keep the Corps and Congress happy, but the meeting left the people who would pay for the project confused about the process for the next few years and about what was really going to happen.Since that time, there has been scarce public information about the project. What has happened in the intervening years is that the lobbyists and promoters working on behalf of the Drainage District have been at work under a veil of almost zero public information, lining up the money at the state and federal levels to fund the project they want. What they want is the lake alternative rather than levees, flood-plain buyouts, or non-dam structural changes to the river channel.

The lake option, they believe, would produce funds to service state bond debt better than any of the other alternatives. Thus the flood control project is in service of a business plan more than a hydraulic plan. The groundwork for all of it has been prepared out of the public spotlight as much as possible. There are $133 million authorized in the 2007 federal Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) from Congress, waiting to be appropriated. The state must come up with another $72 million to match the federal share. That $205 million will get the project started, but it is likely that another $100-$200 million or more would be needed to fund a project.

The old reliable “Mississippi Slam Dunk” is practiced by lobbying Congress and the Legislature to put public money in place for projects that the promoters hope will bring investment and that will be “game changers” to boost the local business economy. And the key is to line up everything before the taxpaying public can find out what’s going on. A great example is the Kemper County “Clean-Coal” Plant and there is no greater believer in the slam dunk than Mississippi Power Company. Their slam dunk, by the way, is now in shambles because after building the incredibly expensive plant that would have turned lignite coal into syn-gas, the company pulled the plug when it faced economic reality. It would be cheaper to use natural gas from pipelines than try to turn peat moss into fuel through alchemy. Several of these slam dunks, like Kemper, have proved to be mill-stones around the neck of Mississippi rate-payers or taxpayers, but by the time the citizens paying the bills feel that weight, the projects have played themselves out and the architects of the slam dunk are “in Tahiti”.

The pieces of the attempted “One Lake slam dunk” that have been methodically laid out include Mississippi House bill 1585 (2016) which amended the taxing power of a drainage district to allow taxing property owners who directly or indirectly benefit from a project. House Bill 1631 (2017) would have lined up the state match money ($95 million) for the One Lake project before the Army Corps of Engineers finished its final approval. (Right now the project is still in Agency Technical Review and has not been published for comment or sent to the Army Assistant Secretary for Civil Works for a signature) That bill died in the Mississippi Senate in March. The Congressional Water Resources Development act of 2016 gave expedited review to this project by the Corps of Engineers. And, as a result of the Trump tax bill passed this year by Congress, there is an Opportunity Zone painted down the urban reach of the Pearl River in the outline of the One Lake project. Governor Bryant and the Mississippi Development Authority chose the Opportunity Zones for the state. The one with the best connections and the most lobbying power holds the cards.The way to prevent a slam dunk on the basketball court is to stop the player with the ball from becoming airborne. When he’s off the ground, it’s too late.

The lake promoters suffered a setback this year when the state bond money for One Lake couldn’t be lined up during the regular Legislative session. But that won’t be the last we hear about it and they haven’t stopped playing for the dunk.The One Lake project sponsors, their lobbyists, and numerous real estate brokers in the crowd at the Smith Robertson Atrium on Tuesday night saw what a good, informative meeting looked like. One of them walked up afterward and said that it was a good meeting. The One River-No Lake Coalition wants the public to understand the history and the issues here and downriver and to see all the flood control options explained. Not just the favored lake. I’m not sure the Drainage District and the Pearl River Vision Foundation really want this same thing, but now they have seen it done.

Andrew Whitehurst is GRN’s water program Director and works on Mississippi water policy and wetland issues.

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