Mississippi’s elected leadership may be getting a better understanding about how river flow and oysters are related. It would seem that a coastal state such as ours would protect the rivers that feed fresh water to the coast. River flow helps keep moderate salinities in marshes and coastal bays- the nursery areas - that make it possible to have a seafood industry that harvests fish, shrimp, crabs and oysters. Oysters, unlike the other marine life, cannot move, and the water conditions where they grow either sustain them or harm them.
One executive agency of the state, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, (MDMR) is trying to restore oyster production. In the west end of the Mississippi Sound, near the Hancock County marshes, Rigolets and Lake Borgne, oyster growth and production depend on the right conditions - created by the Pearl River’s fresh water flow mixing with the Sound’s higher salinity waters. Near the mouth of the Pearl, MDMR is now spending tens of millions of BP Oil spill settlement money to restore oyster reefs and lay shell and crushed rock to make new hard bottoms where oyster larvae can settle and grow. MDMR is trying to restore oysters, but not all state agencies, it seems, are pulling in the same direction.
The Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) has provided $1 million to study flood control alternatives for Jackson that seem to be pointing to a project to dam the Pearl River to create a new lake to control flooding in Hinds and Rankin Counties. The river already has the Ross Barnett Dam on it, and dredging and damming the urban section of the Pearl in Hinds and Rankin Counties would create a second lake just a few miles downstream of the Reservoir. Adding more impoundments that withhold flow on important rivers like the Pearl is not good for oyster production. How do we know this?
Phil Bryant convened the Governor’s Oyster Council in 2015 and the seafood industry leaders he selected produced a report about the current condition of oysters in Mississippi and what needs to be done to help the industry. The Council’s Final Report specifically names “insufficient fresh water quantity” on page 29 as a threat to oyster restoration success. On page 30 it lists the following action item: “discourage freshwater depleting projects and educate decision makers on impacts of major freshwater depleting projects.” Dams and lakes on main river channels, by the way, are “freshwater depleting projects”. Lakes evaporate more water than the rivers from which they were created, and withholding water upstream behind dams often disrupts the timing and volume of water released from their gates.
Another state agency, the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District (a local levee board), voted to select the lake alternative for the Pearl as its locally preferred option over levee improvements, channel work without a dam, or floodplain buyouts for Pearl River flood control. Why? The spokesmen for the “One Lake” project seem to believe that flood district taxes from a lucrative lake project will service state construction bond debt better than the other alternatives would. Whether or not that’s true, this business plan chooses the most environmentally destructive alternative – dredging and damming – over the other methods that would be less disruptive to the river’s ecology, its wetlands, and to fresh water flow to the coast. State government certainly knows dams disrupt flow and threaten oysters – this is explained in the 2015 Oyster Council Final Report.
There are many contradictions in state government. The competing interests at opposite ends of the Pearl River reveal state government agencies pulling against one another. No matter how much money and expertise the Department of Marine Resources and the Governor’s Oyster Council expend improving oyster bottoms at the mouth of the Pearl River or elsewhere, that money will be wasted if MDA and the Rankin Hinds Drainage District undertake to finance a river project that reduces fresh water output at the coast and harms basic oyster biology.
Our state’s decision-makers are getting an education on these issues. The Mississippi Senate Finance Committee decided not to put HB 1631 to a floor vote this week before an action deadline on Tuesday. This controversial bond bill passed the House of Representatives by a slim margin and its language would fund the flood control project on the Pearl River with $95 million, creating $50 million in new bonds, and making available $45 million in uncommitted MDA money to the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District. It was clear that many legislators needed the basic information contained in Chapter 4 of the Oyster Council’s 2015 Final Report. The House of Representatives voted earlier without much information, but Senate members did more homework. The language in HB 1631 could come back in some form, perhaps later in the 2018 Legislative process or in another session. This year, the flood control project it would have funded was still under review by the Army Corps of Engineers while the $95 million in bonds to pay for it were being moved through the Legislature. That was putting the cart before the horse, at best. At worst, it was an attempt at a financing slam dunk that would make a lake seem inevitable. For now, this has not happened.
The first four pages of Chapter 4 “Oysters and the Environment”, of the Governor’s Oyster Council 2015 Final Report are available on the Miss. Department of Marine Resources website for the rest of the Mississippi Legislature to read it when they’re ready.
This article updates Oysters, Rivers and State Government Contradictions, published here in 2016. Andrew Whitehrust is GRN's water program director.