/It’s been slow moving’ The debate over One Lake comes to a head 40 years after historic flood

It’s been slow moving’ The debate over One Lake comes to a head 40 years after historic flood

JACKSON — Christopher Lockhart examines a sandbar in LeFleur’s Bluff State Park. He collects discarded plastic water bottles, and beer cans. Lockhart, a high school science teacher, wears a black Tshirt, black track pants, and sandals. Lockhart’s long, straight dreadlocks have been tied in a knot. He’s not only cleaning the park but also tidying up his office by the Pearl River. Eric J. Shelton/ Report for America, 28. Since 2005, Capital City Kayaks has been leading tours that give a glimpse at a hidden treasure that few Jacksonians ever see. He believes that the Pearl’s true treasure is the stretch of river south of Ross Barnett Reservoir. The (Reservoir), is so manmade, constructed and fabricated. He said that when you go to the river you will see old cypress trees and marshland. He also pointed out Spanish moss on the Pearl. “Everything is as it should be.” That is impossible. This is beautiful, like Bob Ross would paint.” Eric J. Shelton/ Report for America Lockhart, is another Jacksonian concerned about the plan that promises to reduce flooding in the capital and provide economic development opportunities. One Lake, as it is commonly known, was revealed in 2011. It calls for the widening of the Pearl River to provide riverfront access. This will allow for recreational and business opportunities, which would offset the $350 million cost. Lockhart and others, as well as environmental groups and critics, believe One Lake will be a disaster. Conservationists claim that the project will disrupt water flow in Louisiana and southern Mississippi, which could lead to flooding, as well as habitat loss for two endangered species. Bennie Thompson (a Mississippi Democrat) and Steve Scalise (the Republican assistant minority leader in Congress), have both expressed concerns and called for more information. The advertised cost is being questioned by the state agencies responsible for infrastructure. Eric J. Shelton/ Mississippi Today/ Report for America. The project developers are a non-profit group that was founded by a Jackson oilman. They insist that the final project will address these and other concerns. A recent change in the thinking of a federal wildlife agency, which had previously deemed One Lake to be the most harmful option, is what they point out. After reviewing new data provided by the developers, the U.S. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published an opinion last October stating that the project would not harm two endangered species: the ringed-map turtle and the gulf sturgeon. The developers claim that a key report (the final environmental impact statement before federal agencies can give it a green light) will include new information, which should dispel any doubts. One Lake’s critics don’t believe this is true. They have been decrying a slow and opaque process. They claim it will not be possible to assess the impact of One Lake until the public has the opportunity to inspect the data and vet the developers. Andrew Whitehurst, the water program director at Healthy Gulf, a conservation-focused non-profit, said, “All (the Federal opinion) reassures us about is that they had some a bit better information on sturgeons and turtles.” “But it doesn’t change anything about wetlands impact, the downstreams impacts on temperature or other physical properties water, such as sediment or flow.” Many people in Jackson see Lockhart’s beautiful scenery and link it to the destruction done forty years ago. The Pearl River rose to 43 feet on Easter Day 1979, making it the largest flood in Jackson’s history. According to estimates, the flood caused damage that submerged Lakeland Drive and the downtown. The Central Mississippi soil was soaked by historic rains that fell along the Pearl River Basin in the months preceding. On April 1, the area received between 15 to 20 inches of rainfall. Eric J. Shelton. Mississippi Today/Report For America. The Pearl River, which flows southward from Jackson into Louisiana and forms the state’s border, before emptying into Lake Borgne, continued rising. It topped out on April 17. More than 500 million dollars was spent on roads and homes, as well as damage to businesses and homes. More than 15,000 Jacksonians were forced from their homes. The damage to homes, businesses and roads would have been more than $500 million if the flood happened today. This is six times the operating budget of Jackson. Pope John Paul II sent support to “all those… who have been so greatly affected by the flood disaster,” while Jimmy Carter, then-President, said that he believed residents would recover from the “unprecedented flood”. Rusty Pfost was then a National Weather Service intern in Jackson at the age of 24. It’s burned into me. I can recall water coming out of downtown manholes like a fountain.” Other serious failures further exacerbated the flooding. A radar tower was struck by lightning, cutting off satellite data. The city of Flowood enlisted the help of hundreds of Parchman inmates and college students to strengthen the levee’s Rankin County section. This allowed water to flow into residential areas of Jackson that would otherwise have been flooded by forested land. Pfost stated, “It was nuts.” Photo courtesy National Weather Service Jackson. In 1979, Jackson’s Pearl River gauge could only be accessed by phone or manually. Pfost recalls that a worker was able to sleep in a shelter nearby the gauge after the phone line was cut off by flooding. This kept others informed. Marty Pope, senior service hydrologist at NWS Jackson, stated that all readings now are sent to satellite and they get it every hour. “Back then, it was rare to get one every 24hrs.” Significant changes were made within the next year, including the addition of top of-the-line gauges and strengthened inter-agency relations, as well the formal organization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for disaster response. Jackson has not seen any structural improvements in 40 years, except for Fortification Street’s elevated levee. Pope stated that flooding has been slow to be addressed. 2018 was the second-wettest year in Jackson’s history, following the Easter Flood. The urgency of implementing a flood-control program to prevent another flood like 1979 or worsening climate patterns makes it more urgent. One Lake was the result of more than 30 years of failed proposals such as Shoccoe Dam. This dam would have been located near Carthage and raise the levees. Eric J. Shelton/ Mississippi Today/ Report for America John McGowan, a petroleum drilling company owner, proposed the construction of two lakes south of Reservoir. Two Lakes, as it was called, faced fierce opposition from conservationists who feared that the lakes would cause irreversible damage to Mayes Lake, the hardwood and Cypress swamps where Christopher Lockhart leads his tours. Jackson Free Press also raised concerns about McGowan’s connections and the wealth of landowners. A 2007 amendment to the federal Water Resources Development Act allowed a local entity, instead of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to create a flood-control plan in Jackson. Although the money has yet to be appropriated, the bill authorized $134 million for flood control efforts. McGowan revealed plans for One Lake in 2011, after the Two Lakes plan collapsed. McGowan created a non-profit called the Pearl River Vision Foundation to raise funds for federally mandated environmental assessments and other documents. According to Internal Revenue Service records, the nonprofit raised $2.4million between 2012 and 2017. The group also received $200,000 in cash infusions from the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership, and a $1million research grant from Mississippi Development Authority. According to the latest IRS tax forms, the nonprofit lobbyed the Mississippi Legislature and spent $135,813 lobbying between 2012-2017. The Mississippi Legislature granted the levee board taxing authority in 2017 to operate and maintain flood control projects. The bill states only that the tax will apply to property in the district that is directly, or indirectly, benefited by this project. Keith Turner, the levee board attorney, says that taxing these properties would save them money relative to flood insurance. He said that the tax would be determined by how many residents are benefited from flood control. One Lake’s developers made it to the first major hurdle in 2018, when they published the draft of an environmental study that federal law required for the project. Although the document was intended to address concerns about potential impacts on downstream communities, it received a stern rebuke from many environmental groups and communities that opposed the Two Lakes plan. Skepticism rises on many fronts. The release of the study triggered a public comment process in which conservationists, federal and state agencies, and elected officials gathered to express their concerns. Some of the criticisms were about water flow and cost. Jill Mastrototaro was the policy director for Audubon Mississippi. She objected to its scope and argued that it did not pay enough attention to communities south Jackson. She stated that there were 200 miles below the low head dam that were not included in the draft. Two-thirds (or more) of the Pearl River runs south of the capital. This stretch of the Pearl River flows southwards over thousands of acres of wetlands, which are home to endangered species and migratory fish. The wetlands act as natural flood control by sucking up water from the rivers and rain. One Lake has been opposed by some of these communities. The project was opposed by the Louisiana state Senate, several Mississippi counties, and cities. Martha Watts, Monticello’s mayor, said that the agency has “absolutely no concern or absolutely no regard” for anyone south of them. Mastrototaro responded to the change in tone by the federal wildlife agency on One Lake. She said that “it’s unfortunate” that the agency “ended their view not even two-miles below the low head dam.” “Changing water flow of the Pearl will alter the amount downstream that carries sediment, nutrients, and that carries freshwater that sustains all of these habitats,” she added. Eric J. Shelton/ Mississippi Today/ Report for America Mastrototaro stated that she had never seen such an evaluation after the agency’s initial assessment on One Lake. They called it the most environmentally damaging option. She stated that “they found that [environmental study] was so lacking in science, and in technical feasibility that it should be returned and developed another draft.” “Which, in my professional years, never heard a federal agency make such an recommendation.” Andrew Whitehurst from Healthy Gulf believes there are inherent problems with damming rivers that have not been addressed for One Lake. He said that damming a river can be a regressive action. He said, “Damming a river is regressive.” The unaddressed cost of the environmental study by agencies would increase One Lake’s price tag by $350 million. Melinda McGrath, the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s Executive Director, wrote in fall 2018 about how seven bridges on the Mississippi River would experience “catastrophic fail” if One Lake’s construction proceeds. This is due to a lower underlying foundation. According to a spokesperson for the transportation department, replacing the bridges will cost Mississippi Today between $120 million-150 million. The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality then followed suit raising concerns about One Lake’s proximity to two landfills, and a creosoting area. The agency recommended that the landfills be completely excavated. Jackson is currently under a federal consent decree due to the amount of raw wastewater that Jackson’s old wastewater system dumps into Pearl River. According to Abby Braman of Pearl Riverkeeper, the first priority for Jackson should be fixing that. Braman stated that Jackson is saying they can’t afford to fix all the infrastructure or sewer problems. Braman said, “If the city can’t even fix its infrastructure to keep sewage out the water, then what are they going to tax to build a new development along the river?” The sponsors of One Lake believe that the new modeling data shows that One Lake would not harm the wetlands or habitats downstream. Keith Turner, an environmental lawyer representing the levee board and Dallas Quinn (a Jackson native who works with oilman John McGowan’s nonprofit Pearl River Vision Foundation), are the members of the team that will respond to the criticisms. They received 2,000 comments in the public comment period. Turner and Quinn claim that One Lake would not affect water flow along the river. They claim their conclusions about water quality and quantity haven’t changed but they have data from the draft environmental study that they hope will dispel any doubts. Planners shared the new data with federal and state environmental agencies, but they have not made it public. It comes from a Tetra Tech river model in Pasadena (Calif.) Eric J. Shelton/ Mississippi Today/ Report for America. Project sponsors mention a passageway in One Lake’s design that will allow gulf sturgeon through it, and islands will be built to provide habitat for the ringed-map turtle. Turner disagrees with the assertion of the state transportation department that some bridges may need to be replaced. Turner claimed that the public comment period did not allow for enough time to conduct a thorough analysis of the possibility of digging the lake. He said that they only received some items, but not nearly all the information we needed to provide to them. MDOT sent a letter in November. This was more than a year later. A spokesperson for the agency stated that “MDOT and One Lake representatives were meeting and working on technical problems.” Turner replied to the concerns expressed by Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality in a December 3rd letter. He attached the updated water modeling data and assured that there would be no adverse effects on water flow. Turner stated that the state environmental department had misunderstood the size of nearby landfills and that it was not financially feasible to excavate them. He also said that the project would include cleanup efforts that will “far exceed” previous clean-up efforts. Turner acknowledged that he sympathizes with the concerns about One Lake but expressed disappointment at the level of criticism. He said, “I’m going to not sit here and say that people that are concerned about our project are wrong in their worries.” “That is why we must give them real science and engineering so they can make educated decisions.”
decision. However, there is a lot of emotion attached some environmental groups to the way they talk with people. This has made people fearful and concerned about what might happen to their communities. It’s unwarranted.” Eric J. Shelton/Report For America Quinn sees One Lake as a chance to spark hope in his hometown. He views the single boat ramp that Lockhart uses to access the Pearl River in Jackson as a symbol of the state of affairs. Quinn stated that Jacksonians don’t own the river, as they don’t have any access to it. “As someone who was raised in Jackson and used to go down to the river every day, I understand how important this could be for everyone. “If the district can not only build this plan, but also reconnect people with the river and give them real access to it, that would be a great benefit to this city in the form of recreation and additional funds coming into this city that are so desperately need right now.” Turner stated that he hopes to have the new environment study completed by January and send it to the Corps of Engineers. The process will begin in six months, during which both federal and state agencies can provide their feedback on One Lake. The public will then have 30 days to make comments after the six-month period. The fate of One Lake will then be decided by a high-ranking president appointee at U.S. Department of Defense. The approval of the project would mean that the pre-construction and design process will take approximately one year. These estimates indicate that construction of One Lake would start in the late 2021. One Lake has received mixed political support. In his role as a member of the Appropriations committee, the late U.S. Senator Thad Cochran helped to secure funding for the project. His successor, Senator Cindy Hyde Smith, and her colleague, Sen. Roger Wicker have not taken a position. Rep. Thompson submitted a grocery list of economic and environmental concerns about One Lake to the comment period. In 2018, Rep. Scalise helped pass legislation that would increase project vetting. Lt. Governor spokesperson. Mississippi Today was told by Delbert Hosemann that he supports this project. According to campaign finance records, John McGowan contributed $67,000 between 2007 and 2019. Eric J. Shelton/ Mississippi Today Report for America Lockhart is worried about the impact of One Lake’s construction on his kayaking business. Lockhart stated that this is where I do most my kayaking and tours. If they were digging around, it would be difficult for me to access. “You’re going to have a huge cesspool of trash If it looks like a large muddy pit during construction,” Lockhart said. There has been renewed anxiety over finding a solution before the same fate happens again. In an April 1979 Clarion-Ledger editorial, it warned that “it may be that no single person or agency are to blame. Everyone is.” We have provoked Pearl by disregarding her natural (and old) boundaries. Now she has provoked us with disrespect for ours. She was the first to be here, and she will stay here until all other living people have died. We can’t stop the river and she can’t drown. A settlement, an armistice is possible… but the real task is to make a pact.