The Washington Parish Council passed a resolution against more upstream damming on the Pearl River as a result of Jackson Mississippi’s proposed “One Lake” project. The resolution passed unanimously at the Council’s meeting on Monday night, January 22nd in Franklinton, La.
With this action, both Parish governments on the Louisiana side of the lower Pearl River oppose this lake project due to concerns about reduced river flow and degradation of river habitats, wetlands, and potential harm to industries and municipal sewage plants permitted to discharge to the Pearl River. The St. Tammany Parish Council passed a similar resolution opposing the project in 2013. The Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources passed its own resolution in 2013 - primarily to protect oyster production from more threats to fresh water flow caused by upstream damming on the Pearl River.
People up in Jackson may wonder why there is such a stir from the Louisiana Parishes and the Mississippi Coast about their 1500 acre lake project that they are promoting as flood control with riverfront development.
The following quote sums up the issue:
“If the water in the Pearl River gets any lower in the summer, the catfish will get ticks.”
I heard this gem over the phone while talking with someone in Marion County where the Pearl River gets so low that it almost separates into isolated pools in some low flow months. The complaints include not being able to use small motors on flatboats, and not being able to use boat launches because the river leaves them dry with the end of the ramp dozens of feet from any water at all. Those are the recreation problems at low flow.
There are also problems for towns, businesses and industries along the river that hold discharge permits. The Pearl is a “working river” with 106 discharge permits in Mississippi and Louisiana; 98 are in Mississippi. Permits are written and administered by each state’s Department of Environmental Quality. When the river levels drop from mid-summer through the fall in the dry part of the year, the dilution of the effluent discharged into a very low river is often poor and can be inadequate to protect the river’s fish and its biological health. In fact, the permit holders can violate their concentration and load limits and be charged with Clean Water Act fines if there isn’t enough fresh water flow in the river.
The lower Pearl River feels these low flow conditions most years, and the people and businesses along it cannot imagine what it would be like if even less water comes down the river. This is why the idea of a new dam in Jackson gives people downstream such heartburn. Rivers have a finite amount of water, and damming them to create lakes withholds that water for a practical purpose like water supply or flood control, but lakes always increase evaporation due to basic physics. The greater surface area of a lake drives more water into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. A dam and lake alternative was voted on as a locally preferred flood control alternative for Jackson, Flowood and Pearl, but the two-county drainage district doing the voting didn’t ask people in Monticello, Columbia, Bogalusa, Picayune or other cities downriver, all of which already feel the effects of low flow. They must also deal with massive water releases from the Ross Barnett Reservoir during heavy rains in the river's upper basin. When the Environmental Impact Statement and feasibility study for this project are published sometime in the first quarter of 2018, these folks will get a chance to attend public meetings and comment for the record so the Corps of Engineers and the project sponsors hear them. The two Parishes and one state agency with resolutions have decided not to wait, but to raise their voices early.
Washington Parish Councilman Perry Talley who authored Monday’s resolution said: “One of Washington Parish’s greatest resources is the Pearl River System. It is an integral element to our past, present and future. While it is a resource to be utilized, it is also a jewel to be cherished and preserved.” Mr. Talley is also a member of the Pearl River Task Force created by the Louisiana Senate Natural Resources Committee.
The “One Lake” project has been promoted as improving flood control for Jackson. However, the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District voted in 2013 for this project as its locally preferred alternative because it would combine flood control and economic development, giving Jackson a new urban riverfront. After the Council meeting, Gary Parker of Bogalusa who has spent six decades on the Pearl River said: “Millions of dollars of federal and state money have been invested in coastal restoration projects for oysters, and for wildlife management areas and refuges. To add more dams and increase the amount of water held upstream will only increase the rate of destruction on the lower Pearl. It would not be fair, nor would it be the right thing to do.” Parker added, “ I conclude that the good people in the Jackson area either do not really know what’s happening further downstream on the Pearl, or do not care.”
The project area - a seven mile river section flanked by the Mississippi cities of Jackson, Flowood and Richland - is now largely undeveloped floodplain forest and wetlands. The “One Lake” project would be situated about 8 miles downstream of the existing Ross Barnett Reservoir, completed in 1963 on the Pearl River. Dredging to widen the Pearl River and damming to impound a new 1500-acre lake would destroy 1000 acres of wetlands and impact two threatened species having designated critical habitat in the project’s footprint: Gulf sturgeon and Ringed sawback turtle.
State agencies including the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, submitted scoping comments critical of this project in 2013, raising issues of flow impairment from additional upstream damming and related harm to fish and wildlife habitat, protected species, and important, expensive coastal marsh and oyster reef restoration projects. The Pearl River’s fresh water flow helps maintain healthy salinities in the Western Mississippi Sound, through Lake Borgne and the Rigolets to the eastern extent of Lake Pontchartrain.
Along with preventing the catfish from getting ticks, there are a broad range of solid, practical, scientifically sound reasons that another flood control alternative - not the One Lake plan- should be chosen for Jackson.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's water program director and covers wetlands, permit, and water pollution issues in Mississippi.