Pearl River One Lake Plan Update Part 2: Will the next DEIS version be any better?

It’s been eight years since August of 2013 when project scoping began on the Pearl River One Lake project. The non-federal sponsors of the project, the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District published a Draft Environmental Impact Statement in summer of 2018 and the Army Assistant Secretary for Civil Works has been reviewing the document ever since then. This Agency Technical Review or ATR may see a significant step in September with Rankin Hinds submitting an updated draft incorporating the Army Secretary’s review notes, corrections and additions.

This process has taken eight years, far longer than a normal Corps of Engineers environmental review process. At one point in 2017-2018 Rankin Hinds ran out of money to pay the Army Corps review staff, so review just stopped till the checks started arriving again. The Draft EIS document was so badly put together that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its official 2018 comment letter recommended that Rankin Hinds start over with a whole new Draft EIS and resubmit it.  That didn’t happen.

To review what transpired three years ago, there were three alternatives developed and published in the 2018 Draft EIS: Alternative “A” – nonstructural measures such as building elevations and floodplain buyouts for $2 billion dollars, Alternative “B”, levee improvements for $720 million, and Alternative “C”, the lake, for $350 million.

As was discussed in Part 1 of this blog, the Rankin Hinds District has been well endowed with favors from Congress on the One Lake project. The late Senator Thad Cochran and now Mississippi’s senior Senator Roger Wicker, have both provided the project with special treatment.

The advantages that Congress has afforded the Rankin-Hinds District through the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) include:

• Restriction of the official “study area” for the lake project to Rankin and Hinds Counties in central Mississippi, despite the effects of an impoundment on downstream Counties/Parishes.
• Allowing the project to be governed by ER 1105-2-100(2000) a twenty year-old, Army Corps of Engineers planning guidance document for environmental and economic review which helps set the approval bar lower for Rankin Hinds.
• Granting the project expedited Army Corps review of the Draft EIS and feasibility studies.

In Mississippi, the “slam dunk” is the preferred way to get big economic development projects approved and in place (automobile plants, tire plants, State Port enhancements). Politicians and backers play an inside game, withholding public information while spending public money, greasing all the wheels, lining up the agencies for approval, and treating the opposition to a blitzkrieg. The One Lake project claims to be about flood control, but the Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce Partnership has given some of the money for the completion of the Draft EIS, and its former chairman called this project an economic “game changer” for Jackson and Rankin and Hinds Counties. The lake was the centerpiece of the Chamber’s Vision 2022 Plan for Metro Jackson, but that plan seems to be stored off of the Chamber’s website these days. Jackson has been distracted with large, expensive infrastructure problems over the past five years at least. When the drinking water and sewer systems need billions of dollars of repairs and upgrades, and when the potholes in the streets are bad enough to inspire YouTube videos about them, it seems less likely that creating an urban waterfront on the Pearl River will be the thing that catapults Jackson out of its troubles. However, the lake drumbeat has only receded a little in the face of these more pressing needs – when the time comes, the One Lake supporters will get louder about what they think the river and the city need.

If it wasn’t for the Pearl’s status as an interstate river, there would be fewer eyes on the project’s process and fewer interested stakeholders evaluating what the true downstream effects of such a project might be.

To give Louisiana’s downstream Parishes, industries and ecosystems some protection in the face of what Mississippi’s agencies and Congressional delegation have been doing behind the scenes, Louisiana’s D.C. delegation went to work. In 2018 Senator Bill Cassidy and Representative Steve Scalise worked to write assurances into WRDA 2018 that require the Army Secretary to give an extra measure of review to downstream effects on the Pearl River from the project in Jackson, and importantly to restrict anyone at Rankin Hinds or the Vicksburg Corps from doing early design and engineering work with federal money before having a final record of decision on the One Lake project’s EIS – signed by the Army Secretary. Mississippi’s lake promoters would like nothing more than to jump the gun and spend millions of federal dollars on land purchases, detailed design and engineering before final Corps approval in order to make One Lake seem inevitable and take the wind out of the opposition’s sails. That early work hasn’t happened, thanks to the Louisiana Congressional delegation,   but the Secretary’s final decision, one way or another on the lake plan, could come in 2022.

When the next version of the project’s EIS is released to the public for comments, sometime in the last quarter of 2021 or in early 2022, it will be published not by the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District, but by the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works as another draft document, with its own comment period. This will also be the point of transition when the Rankin Hinds District could hand the project off the to the Army Corps in Vicksburg, however; with changes in agency leadership since the Biden administration began , it’s not clear that the Army Corps will agree that Alternative C, the lake, is the best way to solve urban flooding in Jackson.

At the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps, the new marching orders for agency administrators include emphasizing better floodplain management, use of natural and “green” infrastructure (like wetlands), and close attention to how civil works water projects will function in the face of climate change. It’s significant in the new agency setting that the Rankin Hinds District ignored natural infrastructure and paid minimal attention to climate change in its 2018 DEIS environmental analysis of dredging and damming the Pearl River. Also, the reliance on 1860 acres of wetland removal/filling for a large portion of the lake project’s economic justification should bear closer scrutiny under the Biden Administration’s EPA and Army Corps leadership appointments than it did under President Trump’s appointees.

The draft that is eventually published by the Army will need to be checked against the ATR review notes the Corps wrote back in 2018, and we’ll need to see if the many weaknesses in the Draft EIS identified by commenters have been addressed. Some of the issues to watch are:

Slanted economic analysis: More than $100 million in costs for replacing nine highway bridges were left out of the Draft EIS. Also only $8 million dollars – a gross cost underestimate – were allocated for remediation of several hazardous waste sites and landfills in the project’s footprint. Heavy reliance on filling functional, healthy wetlands for the project’s economic justification (intensification benefits) should be reviewed critically.

A more realistic array of combinations of Alternatives: Setting up two very expensive “straw men” (relocate downtown Jackson “A”) (build expensive levees “B”) to  compare to the cheaper lake “C “  was a predictable result of giving the Rankin Hinds Drainage District free rein to hire its own consultants to produce a plan for its preferred alternative – the lake. A better mix of the alternatives: nonstructural floodplain buyouts, levee improvements, levee setbacks to widen the narrow points in the flood plain could avoid having another study that begins and ends with “the lake or nothing.”

Poor modeling of downstream water quantity remains a problem – sponsors of the project paint a very rosy picture of low flows and water loss downstream in their predictive modeling.

There may be a third protected species in the project’s footprint by EIS publication time. To protect the Pearl River Map Turtle and the Pascagoula Map Turtle, the USFWS agreed in a 2020 lawsuit to do a listing determination by October 2021. These turtles were separated on genetic and morphological characteristics into two species that are endemic, respectively, to the Pascagoula and Pearl River systems. The Pearl map turtle is found in the lake project area, and may get its own protection plan.

More will soon be known about how the Gulf Sturgeon uses the Pearl River. The Rankin Hinds District’s contractors deliberately downplayed the federally protected (ESA- threatened status) sturgeon’s use of the section of the Pearl River impacted by the project.  A new Gulf Sturgeon telemetry tracking study, ongoing, by USFWS and University of Southern Mississippi may force Rankin Hinds to correct their self-dealing assumptions. Fish are now tagged, and monitoring stations are set up from the mouth of the river to the Fewell Waterworks low-head dam in Jackson – the midpoint of the lake project.

Protecting a significant portion of Jackson’s drinking water will be tough during lake construction. The city’s older Fewell water treatment plant at the “Waterworks Curve” on I-55 still pulls water out of the Pearl to treat as municipal drinking water for Jackson. And in light of the massive pipe-freezing problems this past winter at its other (O.B. Curtis) water treatment plant, the city will need to keep its options open by running two drinking water treatment plants. The Fewell plant is right in the middle of the area of the Pearl River that would be dredged to create the lake – the One Lake project area. The massive movement of river sediment during lake construction poses a big problem for water withdrawal from the Pearl River. Also, how many other cities are bent on destroying 1800 acres of wetlands next to their city drinking water intakes? Wetlands filter impurities from water, and removing these natural filters is now viewed by urban planners as a “loss of ecosystem services” in towns and cities in parts of the U.S. outside of Mississippi.

External reviews of the Drainage District’s 2018 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be shared with the public as soon as possible. Agency Technical Review (ATR) by the Army Corps staff, and the Independent External Peer Review (IEPR) by Battelle Institute are probably both finished, but the Drainage District is playing hide-the-ball with information requests for their release. Rankin Hinds needs to be transparent and put these on its website.

Pearl River Water Quality remains terrible in Jackson and this lake project would impound water with some of the worst pollution problems in the Pearl River basin. A three year-old MDEQ water contact advisory remains in effect that discourages primary contact with Pearl River water due to bacteria from sewage runoff/bypass. The Pearl River Clean Sweep – a September river cleanup on the entire length of the Pearl, will avoid the urban section of the river for the third straight year due to safety concerns. The City of Jackson reported billions of gallons of partly treated, bacteria-laden water released into the Pearl River in fall and winter of 2020. “One Lake” would feature this badly polluted water along an urban waterfront.

We’ll have to see what September brings.

There is a new Army Assistant Secretary for Civil Works who needs to hear again that building a lake on the Pearl River in Jackson is not the best alternative for Jackson flood control or downstream cities or habitats along the river. If you wish to add your voice to the chorus against One Lake, here is an action letter to the Army Secretary at the Pentagon:

Andrew Whitehurst is Water Program Director at Healthy Gulf.

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