Even with recent flooding, particular interest opposition to the One Lake project remains.
Mississippi is no stranger to high water. One of the most memorable floods in state history is the Easter Flood of 1979 that left much of Jackson under water.
The Pearl River floods, exacerbated by heavy summer rains in the south, have sparked discussion over the years about how to tackle the problem and keep people and property safe.
In 2007, a proposal was presented by the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood Control District to help address the ongoing flood threats occurring in Jackson and surrounding metropolitan areas. Many know this proposal as the One Lake Plan. District attorney Keith Turner calls it the locally preferred plan.
“It’s really not a lake,” Turner said when asked about the proposal. “The plan would keep everything between the levees, taking the existing river just north of Lakeland and widening it between the levees so water can flow more easily.”
The Control District website calls it a “combination of excavating and widening the Pearl River while reinforcing the existing levee system”. This would also include relocating and improving the existing spillway to a location just downstream of I-20.
A draft of the plan, which includes two other alternatives that were presented at the 2007 meeting, explains why this course of action would be most beneficial to the Jackson area. This draft has been submitted as a final report to the Secretary of the Army and the Flooded District is awaiting review by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Turner said they have been working closely with the Secretary of the Army since March 2020 to address any concerns the Corps may have regarding the implementation of the plan and potential impacts to the environment or existing structures in the region.
“These were mostly minor changes, but there have been improvements. We’ve added more information so people can understand why this was the decision we made to move forward,” Turner said.
Turner says they hope to receive a decision on the final review by the end of the year, but it could still take at least two years to start working on the project.
Funding for the project comes largely from the federal government, which has already authorized, but not earmarked, more than $200 million. Turner says the flooded district also plans to ask the state of Mississippi to help with the cost of building the levee.
The flooded district has a bonding authority that can be used.
Turner said the EPA will be involved in this final review stage. However, he anticipates that they will be widely opposed and comment negatively and aggressively due to the politics associated with it.
While Turner and the Flooded District believe this is the least environmentally harmful plan to move forward and deal with the constant threat of flooding, not everyone agrees. . Environmental groups have filed regular and consistent protests on a variety of grounds.
Andrew Whitehurst of Healthy Gulf says the plan will cause additional environmental problems and is not properly priced. He said those opposing the project had questioned the true cost of the project saying they had overlooked potential highway and infrastructure needs which could amount to more than 100 millions of dollars.
Whitehurst also raised a current issue for the Pearl River and urban areas – hazardous waste.
“There are major sewer issues with small tributaries and urban runoff. We are already seeing these issues in the Pearl, which has issued do not swim or eat the fish advisories,” Whitehurst said. He said these problems would only increase with the widened levees proposed by the flooded district.
Whitehurst said that ultimately the flooded district must convince Pentagon officials that the National Economic Development (NED) plan supports Alternative C, which is the One Lake proposal. He said this was not supported by an independent external peer review conducted by Battelle. In this review, it was noted that the draft 2018 EIA/study documents did not demonstrate that Alternative C was the most favorable cost/benefit ratio.
The Whitehurst group, Healthy Gulf and Pearl Riverkeeper, as well as local officials and some Louisiana lawmakers have also expressed concern to the Secretary of the Army. Abby Braman of Whitehurst and Pearl Riverkeeper sent a letter to former Assistant Secretary of the Army RD James expressing their concerns and highlighting the issues uncovered by the peer review.
Both groups have made their opposition to the One Lake project clear. They signed petitions and argued against the project’s progress on multiple grounds.
Both groups also advocated for communities down the river, such as St. Tammany and Washington Parishes in Louisiana.
The ultimate purpose of the letter was to persuade the Secretary of the Army that with respect to the economic rationale for the project, “it is necessary for the sponsors to increase the information they have presented on the benefits and costs of the project. alternative C which involves dredging and other damming up the Pearl River.
“The Rankin Hinds Drainage District had almost four years to revise their EIS/Project Pearl study, but Battelle’s notes point out that the document they released for comment in the summer of 2018 was a very poorly done,” Whitehurst said. “They’ve had four years to redeem themselves, and we don’t know what their updated document looks like.”
Turner with the Control District acknowledged the claims made by those opposing the project, but said the data in the report supports the claim they made that there will be no negative impact on those in downstream from the Jackson area.
“There will be no impact on water quality or quantity,” Turner said.
He went on to say that the district even added items to the project that would increase environmental improvement, such as a turtle mitigation plan that would help save already dying habitats.
Regarding the current sewage problem for the river, Turner asked, “Shouldn’t we be building flood protection for the city because the city has sewer problems in the Pearl?
He added that the project is for flood protection and while it may have environmental and recreational benefits, that is not the purpose.
“The city is in crisis. Anything we can do to help should be done. Our project is part of that,” Turner said.
Senator Roger Wicker addressed the One Lake project this week. He said the project was due to start soon, but needed final approval from the corps to move forward.
“We don’t have to put up with this,” Wicker said.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba joined Wicker for a tour of the flooded area.
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