John McGowan Jackson, Mississippi developer proposes damming the Pearl River with resulting detriment to south Louisiana wetlands
Sunday’s Times Picayune article on the Two Lakes Plan development in Jackson, Mississippi outlines the potential devastation to the lower Pearl River and the Wildlife Management Area.
Here is the T-P article with links provided to read further about this issue
Passing under a veil of Spanish moss to enter the narrow channels of Maple Slough in the West Pearl River, Jeff Rogers’ boat glided past cypress and gum trees keeping silent sentry.
As a bullfrog croaked a lonesome serenade, a great blue heron stood erect on a piece of driftwood. A water-level check boded forewarning.
Dipping a tree branch into the swamp, Rogers, owner of the Cajun Encounters tour company, guessed that it was about 2 1/2 feet deep. Come summer, the bog will be about a foot lower, making it difficult to navigate his 20-foot boat through the slough, the main attraction of the tours that Rogers and three other Slidell companies offer visitors and nature enthusiasts.
“Beyond what it goes down now, I would not be able to navigate down here at all,” Rogers said.
A proposed flood-control project in Jackson, Miss., could make that hypothesis a reality. Environmental experts fear the project could send water pollution downstream and disrupt water levels, which could have disastrous effects on Louisiana’s swamp tour industry.
Promoted by John McGowan of McGowan Working Partners, the project, called the “Two Lakes Plan,” entails damming and dredging the Pearl River 12 miles south of the Ross Barnett Reservoir to create artificial lakes spanning 4,900 acres and containing 90 miles of shoreline.
Within the lakes in downtown Jackson, minutes from Interstate 55, McGowan hopes to build 36 islands loaded with retail, housing and recreational opportunities. He says the plan will make Jackson virtually flood-proof and bring in revenue without affecting downstream communities.
“We want to create a place where people want to be, nature and development-wise,” said Robert Muller, a McGowan consultant.
Environmentalists, horrified by the project, say the Two Lakes Plan will wipe out almost 5,500 acres of wetlands and more than 3,400 acres of forest, jeopardize two threatened species and place residents in the middle of a floodplain.
Many local environmental groups assumed the project would quickly fade after McGowan introduced it 11 years ago, but growing support and the Water Resources Development Act, approved by Congress in November 2007, heightened alarm.
The act authorized a Pearl River flood-control project and told the Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the Two Lakes Plan, referred to as “the locally preferred plan,” before deciding which project to construct.
American Rivers, a Washington advocacy group, cited that vote as “a key issue” in its decision to add the Pearl to its list of America’s most endangered rivers last month.
Melissa Samet, senior director for American Rivers, said the annual list highlights rivers that are at a crossroads.
Since a 1979 flood destroyed almost 3,000 Jackson homes and businesses and caused more than $200 million in damage, a number of flood-control projects have been proposed for Mississippi’s state capital and most populous city. They’ve received varying levels of support.
Last month, the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District voted to approve a different version of the Two Lakes Plan, which calls for the river to be made into one 1,500-acre lake with $205 million in levees stretching north and south.
“I want to stop flooding, one, and, two, I want economic benefit, and anything that will provide that I will support,” said levee board member Con Maloney, who represents Hinds County, which includes Jackson.
Maloney, who voted for the one-lake plan, said the board, “would not intentionally do anything that will hurt people down the river.”
McGowan is nevertheless confident that his proposal will become a reality. In disagreement with the corps over the cost of the project, which he puts at $200 million, McGowan is in the process of contacting the area’s 90 landowners in hopes of financing the lakes as a private project.
“We believe we have a lot of support from other people in Jackson that truly believe this is the better project,” Muller said.
The 490-mile Pearl River extends from Winston County in Mississippi through the central part of that state and into southeastern Louisiana, draining 23 Mississippi counties and three Louisiana parishes along the way. West of Picayune, Miss., the river forks, with the East Pearl River emptying into Lake Borgne and the West Pearl flowing into the Rigolets.
One of the major problems with the Two Lakes Plan, according to critics, is that there’s no agreement on how it will affect Jackson residents and downstream communities.
Monticello Mayor Dave Nichols, whose community lies 60 miles south of the proposed development, said the lakes will bring 2 more inches of water to Monticello and neighboring Columbia.
Then there’s the opposite scenario, offered by Barry Kohl, a geology professor for Tulane University, that the lakes built up north would reduce water flow and “cause additional problems with water availability in the lower Pearl” during the dry season.
“What it could do is potentially starve the Pearl River basin, the part that’s in Louisiana,” Kohl said.
Additional oxygen reductions to the Pearl during the summer months could also impact the river’s larger ecosystem “and probably harm the productivity of fish and harm the population,” Kohl said.
“It’s an issue that the state of Louisiana should be looking at in terms of the impact,” he said.
Chris Piehler, senior environmental scientist for Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality, was not familiar with the plan, but he echoed Kohler’s sentiments about water flow and oxygen levels, saying the proposed developments “could have very significant impacts if they are not managed properly.”
In addition to jeopardizing ecosystems in Mississippi and Louisiana, environmentalists say, the Two Lakes Plan, touted as a flood-control project by McGowan, actually puts residents in Jackson and downstream in greater danger.
That’s because the development would erase nearly 5,500 acres of wetlands that provide natural flood control, said Samet, with American Rivers.
A single acre of wetlands can store up to 1.5 million gallons of water, and Jackson’s wetlands naturally provide about $6.8 million in stormwater-filtering services, she said.
The levee-board-approved single-lake plan, environmentalists say, provides even worse flood protection because, as history has shown, levees can fail.
Nestled in the trees of LeFleur’s Bluff State Park, near the Pearl River in Jackson, a white-eyed vireo and a warbler shared a musical exchange.
“Sounds like they’re talking about where they’re going to go,” said Kathy Shropshire, executive director for the Mississippi Wildlife Federation.
More than 300,000 people enjoy the 300-acre park’s fishing and camping sites and picnic pavilions every year. On a recent afternoon with Shropshire and Pearl River Basin Coalition member Tom Pullen, a handful of visitors picnicked among the water oak and sweet gum trees while a family of Canada geese meandered down Mayes Lake.
“If the lakes plans are built, it will all be permanently under water,” Pullen said of the area.
Shropshire said she and others are surprised that the proposal introduced more than 10 years ago is still alive. “Why anyone would want to live in a floodplain is just beyond me,” she said.
McGowan says his Two Lakes Plan is “100 percent effective on everything from a 100-year flood down,” and will have an “infinitesimal” effect on southeastern Louisiana and other downstream communities.
“That’s so far down there that it wouldn’t have an effect that would be significant,” he said.
McGowan said his plan would significantly slow the river’s rate of flow, and that water moving from the Ross Barnett Reservoir would leave the lakes purified after flowing across nearly 130 miles of grassy shoreline, unlike now, when it sits and stagnates in the river’s wetlands, he said.
And far from providing natural flood control as asserted by environmental experts, the wetlands in Jackson were actually responsible for 6 feet of the flooding during the 1979 flood, Muller said.
“There are lots of places where trees are very wonderful,” Muller said. “They’re a real problem here, and they flood people’s homes.”
Citing the corps’ unreleased feasibility study, McGowan said the agency agrees with the hydraulic benefits of his plan and disagrees only on its price. The corps’ project manager, Gary Walker, confirmed McGowan’s assertions that the Two Lakes Plan would reduce flood damage.
He said it is up the local levee board to determine which flood-control project to undertake. “We really don’t have a stance on it,” Walker said.
Muller said the corps’ study also revealed that the Two Lakes Plan will have no adverse impact on two threatened species: the ringed sawback turtle and gulf sturgeon.
McGowan anticipates that public support of the Two Lakes Plan will bring about approval from local officials, including levee board members needed to move the project forward. He will present his plan Thursday to Mississippi’s House Conservation and Water Resources Committee.
Environmentalists upset about what they might lose aren’t thinking about what the community stands to gain, Muller said.
“They can still have their picnic benches, they can still have their campgrounds, but it’s going to be on a lake,” he said. “It’s not going to have mosquitoes and bugs; it’s going to be beautiful, and people are going to want to be there.”
Cajun Encounters owner Jeff Rogers started his tour business 11 years ago. For his and other swamp tour companies, which provide the bulk of St. Tammany’s tourism industry, the Maple and Eagle sloughs are necessary to show out-of-towners the quintessential swamp.
“This is the highlight of my trip; this is what I sell to my customers,” said Rogers, who guessed that the four companies operating on the West Pearl see an average of 300 to 400 visitors a day.
“If this river goes down a foot more than it is now, my business would be impacted drastically,” he said.
“This is really a jewel,” he said.