The Pearl River and the Agencies Holding its Fate

Last month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) published a proposed “threatened species” listing for the Pearl River Map Turtle. This species was described in 2010 when it was separated on genetic and morphological characteristics from the Pascagoula Map turtle. This discovery meant that the Pearl River is home to two endemic turtle species. This new map turtle and the Ringed Sawback turtle are found in the Pearl drainage and nowhere else.The Center for Biological Diversity and Healthy Gulf sued the Service in 2020 to hasten its work in determining whether, after ten years, this new species of turtle should be evaluated for protection by the Endangered Species Act.  A month past its promised October 2021 due date, the Service published a draft 12 month finding with a recommendation for giving the Pearl River Map Turtle threatened status under the ESA. No further critical habitat designation for the turtle is proposed by USFWS. The 12-month finding by the agency has a 60-day comment period closing January 24, 2022. It’s important that people and organizations down the Pearl Basin, support the turtle’s threatened listing by getting timely comment letters to USFWS.

Also in November, the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District made a presentation about the Pearl River “One Lake” project to the Commissioners at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. A Pearl River Vision Foundation representative, the board attorney for the Drainage District, and a contractor from Headwaters Consulting jointly gave a powerpoint talk about the progress of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and Feasibility Study (DEIS/FS) for the project. The document has been in revision since September of 2018, with review comments and responses exchanged between the Army Assistant Secretary for Civil Works at the Pentagon and the Drainage District. The presenters said they are very close to submitting their final responses to comments to the Army Asst. Secretary. The Secretary’s staff at the Pentagon expects the document in mid-December, but they have been waiting for it since July.  Healthy Gulf submitted extensive comments on the One Lake DEIS through Tulane Environmental Law Clinic in 2018 and we’ve been checking on its status since then.

The lake would dredge and widen 10 miles of the river through Jackson and Flowood to create a 1500 acre lake – from Hwy 25 to Interstate 20 – based on the idea that the widened section of river would allow flood waters released from the Ross Barnett Reservoir to pass through the urban section of the Pearl River without creating harmful backwater flooding into neighborhoods. After the construction of the Ross Barnett Reservoir in 1963, new neighborhoods were built northeast of downtown but still in the Pearl River floodplain. Those neighborhoods and parts of downtown flooded catastrophically in 1979 and 1983 when levees also failed. There was a smaller backwater flood from the Pearl in 2020 in a couple of neighborhoods, but downtown was spared.

The Drainage District’s presentation for the MDWFP Commission showed flood photos from 1983 and from 2020 and the presenters assured the audience that the new lake would fix flooding in Metro Jackson and provide nice new economic development. What the presentation did not reveal was that the lake idea is the most environmentally destructive of three alternatives the Drainage District published in its 2018 DEIS/FS document. The lake is Alternative C. Alternative A calls for nonstructural flood control measures (elevations, flood-proofing, floodplain buy-outs), and Alternative B calls for levee improvements. The lake plan (Alternative C) would destroy 1862 acres of wetlands and require mitigation of lost habitat for Gulf sturgeon and the Ringed sawback turtle, both threatened species under ESA. If the Pearl River map turtle is given threatened status by the USFWS, it will also figure into the lake’s habitat mitigation.  The other two alternatives don’t come close to this kind of habitat and wetland damage, although clearing for levees does cause some wetland loss.

The five member Wildlife and Fisheries Commission has undergone a complete personnel turnover since 2018 when the DEIS/FS for One Lake was published. Governor Tate Reeves has made the most recent Commission appointment: Gary Rhoads, the mayor of Flowood, who is also a board member of the Drainage District sponsoring the One Lake project. So, Mayor Rhoads was one of the official publishers of the One Lake DEIS in 2018. The lake, if built, will be shared by Jackson (Hinds County) and Flowood (Rankin County) although there is more private land on the Rankin County side and most of the economic advantage from wetland filling will accrue to Flowood. Another new commissioner, William Mounger, is a Jacksonian and is also apparently friendly to the lake idea. Dr. Sam Polles, the MDWFP Executive Director has never resisted the lake idea, although it would dredge away and wreck 80 year-old hardwood bottom swamp in one of his agency’s state parks, LeFleur’s Bluff – Mississippi’s only urban state park and home to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. When two of the MDWFP commissioners want the lake, the Director’s pragmatism and historic aversion to making hard, unpopular decisions will prevail. The Director will not oppose One Lake. The options are: make the Drainage District buy MDWFP some park land someplace else, or simply take the newly filled contours after lake dredging happens. It may not be such a simple choice though. The state park was partly created with funds from the U.S. Department of Interior’s Land and Water Conservation Fund, and there are historic deed restrictions placed on the grants of the park property between city and state. Drainage is not one of the uses for which the park was created. The Drainage District didn’t mention that in their presentation.

In the follow-up questions after the presentation, no MDWFP Commissioner inquired about the fact that the lake dredging would remove acres of a well-used state park, and its beautiful wetland habitats. (One of the Drainage District’s slides clearly showed the contours of the planned lake superimposed over wetlands and river bank in the southeast corner of the park.) A yellow text box was added by this author to the District’s slide and posted above to show that the cypress slough at Trail Stop 16 on the Museum of Natural Science nature trail will be dredged away and underwater in the photo that the Drainage District presented to the Wildlife Commissioners. It is one of the prettiest wetlands anywhere around Jackson, Mississippi and thousands of people each year enjoy stopping at the platform built there as an Eagle Scout project. The Audubon Society has deployed nest boxes for Prothonotary warblers here for years. LeFleur’s Bluff State Park is a nationally recognized Important Bird Area (IBA). Do the Wildlife Commissioners know what an urban treasure they have in LeFleur’s Bluff State Park? Has any one of them been to Trail Stop 16?

There were no Commissioner’s questions about mitigation required for displacing two, and possibly a third threatened species protected by federal law and recognized by state statute, even though such habitat loss matters are within agency’s mission. The Commissioners apparently took the Drainage District’s presenters at their word that the park would lose some land and gain some land, but that the final contours would be worked out with the agency after the record of decision from the Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters.  Nobody in the Commission meeting pointed out that Mayor Rhoads has an apparent conflict of interest serving on the Drainage District’s Board where he actively supports “One Lake”, while also serving on the MDWFP Commission and voting on budgeting, care and management for state parks, including LeFleur’s Bluff. What kind of state land and wildlife management decisions will this conflict usher in?

There’s enough cross-pollination now between the Rankin Hinds Drainage District and the MDWFP’s Commission on Wildlife Fisheries and Parks, to make it clear that the state agency tasked to manage and perpetuate the health of wildlife and fisheries resources in Mississippi isn’t going to defend those resources or its own state park.

Andrew Whitehurst is Healthy Gulf’s water program director.

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