Proposed Pearl River project in Mississippi raises fears in St. Tammany

A Mississippi flood control district that unsuccessfully sought to dam the Pearl River and create two lakes south of the Ross Barnett Reservoir in 2008 is once again considering a flood control project that has environmental groups and St. Tammany Parish officials gearing up for a possible fight.

St. Tammany officials opposed what was known then as the “two lakes” plan — damming the river in Jackson, Miss., to create 4,900 acres of lakes — because they feared it would mean lower water flows in the West Pearl River, harming plants and wildlife in marshes and estuaries and interfering with swamp tour boats.

Environmental groups also raised concerns about harm to habitat for two endangered species, the Gulf sturgeon and the ringed sawback turtle, according to Andrew Whitehurst, of the Gulf Restoration Network.

The two lakes plan stalled out when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided it was too expensive and not feasible, according to media reports.

But now, the Rankin-Hines Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District is holding scoping meetings, the first step in creating a draft environmental impact statement.

A notice of intent to publish a draft EIS that appeared in the Federal Register in July says the flood control district, in partnership with the Corps of Engineers, is conducting a “re-analysis of all engineering, economic and environmental factors relative to prospective flood alleviation measures in the Pearl River Watershed study area.’’

The draft EIS will examine “the reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts of all alternative courses of action that may be proposed,” the notice said.

St. Tammany Parish Councilman Gene Bellisario is already raising the alarm about how it could affect the West Pearl and Honey Island Swamp if a dam project is revived.

He brought the issue up at his constituent meeting Tuesday night and said he will ask the Parish Council on Thursday to pass a resolution opposing such a plan.

The Parish Council passed a similar resolution in 2008.

Bellisario also said the parish administration will ask the water district to hold a public meeting on the project in St. Tammany Parish.

The Mississippi flood control board held the first of what are being called re-scoping meetings in Jackson, Miss., on Aug. 29.

A second meeting was planned for Sept. 19 in Picayune, Miss., but Keith Turner, attorney for the flood control district, said that meeting has been postponed until after the district can meet with engineers from St. Tammany Parish.

Whitehurst, who attended the first meeting, said the options that were mentioned including doing nothing, channelizing the river, increasing levee protection and creating a single lake on the river. That lake would be 1,500 acres, much smaller than in the 2008 plan.

Turner said options under consideration also include a dry dam, combinations of floodgates and levees, and buyouts of property in the flood plain.

John McGowan, a Jackson, Miss., businessman who was the driving force behind the two lakes approach, formed the nonprofit Pearl River Vision Foundation, which is described on its website as being in a strategic public-private partnership with the flood control district, which “has a public duty for developing a plan for flood control in the Jackson Metropolitan area.’’

McGowan is no longer on the foundation’s board, Turner said.

But the lake concept he championed is still apparent. The website says the district and the foundation “are tasked with developing a conceptual flood control plan for the Jackson metropolitan area that will provide cost-effective, comprehensive protection from Pearl River flooding, while also providing significant economic development and environmental enhancement opportunities for Hinds and Rankin counties.’’

The foundation is helping foot the bill for the environmental impact study, Turner said, along with other private donations and a grant from the state of Mississippi.

The Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership contributed $200,000 to the foundation to help pay for the study, Turner said.

The chamber group has made the creation of a 1,500-acre lake on the river a central part of its 10-year economic development plan, according to a report in the Jackson Free Press.

Bellisario said he is being told that supporters of the lake project are in a much stronger position than in 2008 to get the project through.

“If we don’t work with our legislators and congressional delegation, we will surely see this project move forward to the detriment of the citizens in Mississippi and Louisiana,’’ he said in an email.