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

After decades of failed proposals and promises of economic opportunity and flood relief for Jackson, supporters and environmental critics brace for a long-awaited environmental study expected in the coming months. In the meantime, a key federal agency’s recent decision about the project, questions about cost and shifting political winds raise even more questions

By Alex Rozier | January 19, 2020

JACKSON — Christopher Lockhart inspects a sandbar at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park, collecting discarded plastic water bottles and beer cans. 

A high school science teacher, Lockhart wears a black T-shirt, black track pants and sandals. His long dreadlocks are tied back in a knot. Today he’s not just cleaning the park, he’s tidying up his office outside of school: the Pearl River. 

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Chris Lockhart picks up trash from a sand bar on the Pearl River Wednesday, October 17, 2018 at Mayes Lake Campground in Jackson. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Lockhart, 28, has for the last five years run Capital City Kayaks, leading tours that offer what he calls a glimpse of a hidden treasure that many Jacksonians never get to see. For him, that leg of the river just south of the Ross Barnett Reservoir is the Pearl’s true gem. 

“The (Reservoir) is so manmade, structured and fabricated. You come out to the river, you’re going to see these old cypress trees, you’re going to see marshland,” he said. On the Pearl, he adds, pointing to Spanish moss: “Everything is the way it should be. You can’t make that. This is picturesque, something Bob Ross would paint.”

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Chris Lockhart, owner of Capital City Kayak Adventures, paddles down the Pearl River. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Lockhart is also among the chorus of Jacksonians concerned about a plan that promises to curb flooding in the capital city while also providing economic development opportunities. One Lake, as it’s known, was unveiled in 2011 and calls for widening the Pearl River to create expanded riverfront access, providing recreational and business opportunities to help offset the project’s estimated $350 million price tag.

Some locals like Lockhart, environmental groups and other critics believe One Lake would be a disaster. Conservationists argue that the project would disrupt water flow downstream in southern Mississippi and Louisiana, threatening wetlands as well as habitat for two endangered species, among others. 

Powerful political leaders such as Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, and Louisiana’s U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the Republican assistant minority leader in the House, have each voiced concerns and the need for more information. State agencies in charge of infrastructure near the project are skeptical of its advertised cost. 

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Nature settings at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park next to the Pearl River. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

The project developers, a nonprofit group organized by a prominent Jackson oilman, have insisted all along that the final project would address these and other concerns. They point to a recent reversal by a key federal wildlife agency that had once characterized One Lake as the most damaging option presented. Now, after seeing new data the developers provided, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an opinion last October saying the project would unlikely harm the two endangered species, the ringed map turtle and gulf sturgeon.

Further, the developers say a key report, the final environmental impact statement required before federal agencies can consider it for a green light, will contain new information that should put to bed all doubts.

But One Lake’s critics aren’t assured. All along, they have decried a process they consider hurried and lacking transparency. They say it won’t be possible to determine the effects of One Lake until the public has a chance to see and vet the developers’ data. 

“All (the federal opinion) reassures me about is that they had a little bit better information on the sturgeon and the turtle,” said Andrew Whitehurst, water program director for Healthy Gulf, a conservation-focused nonprofit. “But it doesn’t change anything about the wetlands impact, or the downstreams impacts to temperature, or other physical properties of the water, like sediment or flow.” 

In Jackson, many see the divine scenery Lockhart describes and associate it with the damage wrought forty years ago. 

On Easter Day 1979, the Pearl River crested at over 43 feet, the flood of record for Jackson. Ensuing damage from the flood, which submerged Lakeland Drive, the state fairgrounds and downtown, totaled hundreds of millions of dollars, according to estimates. In the preceding months, historic rains along the Pearl River Basin soaked the Central Mississippi soil. One April day alone saw between 15 and 20 inches of rain.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Dallas Quinn, with Pearl River Vision Foundation, holds an old Clarion Ledger newspaper that has the coverage of the 1979 Pearl River flood. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

The Pearl River — which starts in Neshoba County, flows southward past Jackson down into Louisiana, forming the states’ border before emptying into Lake Borgne — continued rising, cresting on April 17. The damage to roads, homes and businesses statewide totaled more than $500 million, and more than 15,000 Jacksonians evacuated their homes. If the same flood occurred today, estimates put the damages at more than $1.5 billion — six times the city of Jackson’s operating budget. 

Pope John Paul II sent support from Vatican City to “all the people … who have suffered so greatly by the flood disaster,” while then-President Jimmy Carter said he was confident that residents’ spirits would “prevail over this unprecedented flood.”

“I’ll never forget it,” said Rusty Pfost, then a 24-year-old National Weather Service intern in Jackson. “It’s burned into my memory. I remember water in downtown was coming out of manholes like a geyser.”

Other critical failures worsened flooding. Lightning struck a radar tower, cutting off satellite information. The city of Flowood enlisted hundreds of Parchman inmates, college students and other volunteers to bolster the levee’s Rankin County side, sending water that would have flooded forested land into residential parts of Jackson.

“It was nuts,” Pfost said. 

Photo courtesy of National Weather Service Jackson

Credit: Photo courtesy of National Weather Service Jackson

In 1979, Jackson’s Pearl River gauge was only accessible by telephone or manually. When the flooding took out the gauge’s phone line, a worker slept in a shelter near the gauge to keep others in the loop, Pfost recalled.

“All the readings (now) get sent to the satellite and we get it every hour,” said Marty Pope, senior service hydrologist at NWS Jackson. “Back then, you were lucky to get one every 24 hours.”

Major changes came within the following year such as the addition of top-of-the-line gauges, strengthened inter-agency relationships, as well as the official organization of the disaster-response Federal Emergency Management Agency. Still, no structural improvements have been made in Jackson in the last 40 years to prevent a similar disaster, apart from a heightened levee near Fortification Street.

“It’s been very slow moving to take care of flooding,” Pope said.

After the Easter Flood, the second wettest year on record in Jackson was 2018. Changes in climate patterns bringing more frequent rainfall to Mississippi increase the urgency to implement a flood-control plan to prevent another flood similar to 1979 or worse. 

One Lake followed more than three decades of unsuccessful proposals, such as Shoccoe Dam, which called for a dam near Carthage, and raising the levees. 

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Water flows through the low head dam at waterworks curve on the Pearl River. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

In 1996, John McGowan, who owns a petroleum drilling firm, proposed constructing a pair of lakes south of the Reservoir. Two Lakes, as the project was known, met fierce opposition from conservationists fearing the lakes would cause irreparable harm to Mayes Lake and the hardwood and cypress swamps where Christopher Lockhart conducts his tours. The Jackson Free Press also raised questions about the wealthy landowners who stood to benefit and their connections to McGowan.

Meanwhile, a 2007 change to the federal Water Resources Development Act included a provision to allow a local entity to develop a flood-control plan for Jackson — a task that typically falls to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The bill also authorized $134 million for the flood control effort, although the money has not yet been appropriated.

After the Two Lakes plan imploded, McGowan unveiled plans for the scaled-down version, One Lake, in 2011. McGowan started a nonprofit called the Pearl River Vision Foundation, which would raise money to pay for the federally required environmental assessments and other documents on the levee board’s behalf. From 2012 to 2017, the nonprofit raised $2.4 million, Internal Revenue Service documents show. 

During that time, the group received cash infusions of $200,000 from the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership and a $1 million research grant from the Mississippi Development Authority in 2013. The nonprofit also lobbies the Mississippi Legislature, spending $135,813 on lobbying between 2012 and 2017, according to the most recently available IRS tax forms. 

In 2017, the Mississippi Legislature gave the levee board taxing authority to help operate and maintain the flood control project. The bill only states that the tax would apply to “property in the district that is directly or indirectly benefited by the project.” Levee board attorney Keith Turner says those subject to the tax would ultimately save money compared to what they pay in flood insurance. The tax would vary based on how much residents benefit from the flood control, he added.

One Lake’s developers reached the first major checkpoint in the summer of 2018, when it published a draft of the environmental study federal law requires for such a project. While intended to allay concerns around potential impacts to downstream communities, the 337-page document met stinging rebuke from many of the same environmental groups and downstream communities that fought against the Two Lakes plan.

Skepticism mounts from several fronts

The study’s release kicked off a public comment process that saw conservationists, state and federal agencies and elected officials line up to voice their concerns. The criticisms that resurfaced included impacts to water flow as well as objections around the advertised cost. 

Jill Mastrototaro, policy director at Audubon Mississippi, objected to the study’s scope, arguing that it gave very little attention to communities south of Jackson. 

“There were 200 miles below the low-head dam that were not considered in that draft,” she said.

About two-thirds of the Pearl River flows south of the capital city. There are thousands of acres of wetlands in that stretch, which provide habitat for the endangered species mentioned in the federal fish and wildlife agency’s opinion, as well as several other types of migratory fish. They also act as a natural flood control for downstream communities, sponging up rain and river water. 

Some of those communities have already taken action against One Lake. Louisiana’s state Senate adopted a resolution opposing the project, as did several Mississippi counties and cities.

“They have absolutely no concern and absolutely no regard for anything, anyone, south of them,” said Martha Watts, mayor of Monticello, about 50 miles south of Jackson.

In response to the federal wildlife agency’s change of tone on One Lake, Mastrototaro said “it’s unfortunate that (the agency) ended their view not even two miles below the low-head dam.” 

“Changing the flow of the Pearl would alter the amount of water downstream that carries sediment, that carries nutrients, that carries the freshwater sustaining all of those habitats,” she said. 

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Water flows through the low head dam at waterworks curve on the Pearl River Wednesday, October 17, 2018 near Mayes Lake Campground in Jackson. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

After the agency’s initial assessment of One Lake, calling it the most environmentally harmful option, Mastrototaro said she had never seen such a review.

“They found that (environmental study) so lacking in science and in technical feasibility that the levee board should go back and develop another draft,” she said. “Which, in all my professional years, I’d never heard a federal resource agency make such a recommendation.”

For Healthy Gulf’s Andrew Whitehurst, there are inherent issues involved with damming a river that he hasn’t seen addressed for One Lake.

“Damming a river is regressive,” he said. “Anytime you dam a river, you do two things: you turn that section of impounded water into a sediment trap, which means you’re trapping all the nutrients, and you’re exporting heat because the increased surface area of the river gets more sunlight and it evaporates more.”

While he’s eager to see the new water modeling data, he admitted, “I don’t think it could be a good project.” 

Whitehurst and Mastrototaro are working with other local and state agencies to raise awareness about their concerns. They’ve also pointed to unaddressed costs raised by agencies in response to the environmental study, which would greatly increase One Lake’s advertised price tag of $350 million. 

The Mississippi Department of Transportation and Department Executive Director Melinda McGrath wrote in fall 2018 that if One Lake’s construction proceeds, seven bridges along the river would see “catastrophic failure” due to a reduced underlying foundation. A transportation department spokesperson told Mississippi Today that replacing the bridges would cost between $120 million and $150 million. 

Then the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality followed suit, raising concerns about One Lake’s proximity to two landfills and a creosoting site. The agency suggested completely excavating the two landfills. 

Jackson is also in the midst of a federal consent decree because of the amount of raw sewage the city’s outdated wastewater system dumps into the Pearl River. Fixing that should be the city’s first priority, according to Abby Braman, who works for the clean-up group Pearl Riverkeeper. 

“(Jackson) is saying that they literally can’t pay to fix all the infrastructure and sewer problems,” Braman said. “If the city cannot even fix its infrastructure to keep the sewage out of the water, then how are they going to be taxed to build a new development on the river?”

Repairing reputations

Although they know Whitehurst, Mastrototaro and other critics may never come to support One Lake, the project’s sponsors believe the new modeling data proves that One Lake would leave the wetlands and habitats downstream intact. 

The team tasked with responding to those critiques, all 2,000 of the remarks submitted in the public comment period, is led by Keith Turner, an environmental attorney representing the levee board, and Dallas Quinn, a Jackson native who works for oilman John McGowan and his nonprofit Pearl River Vision Foundation.

According to Turner and Quinn, One Lake would cause no issues with water flow along the river. While they say their conclusions regarding water quantity or quality haven’t changed, they’ve obtained data since the draft environmental study they hope will quell skepticism. The new data, which planners sent to federal and state environmental agencies but have not shared publicly, comes from a river model built by Pasadena, Calif.-based engineering firm Tetra Tech.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

The Pearl River is seen Wednesday, October 17, 2018 near Mayes Lake Campground in Jackson. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

With regards to the endangered species, project sponsors point to a passageway in the One Lake design to allow gulf sturgeon to swim through, and islands to be built as habitat for the ringed map turtle. 

Turner disputes the state transportation department’s assertion that some bridges might need replacing. He said the public comment period didn’t allow enough time to provide a more comprehensive analysis for digging the lake. 

“They only got some stuff, but they didn’t get nearly everything that we need to provide to them,” he said. In November, more than a year after MDOT’s letter, an agency spokesperson said in response to a follow question only that, “MDOT and One Lake representatives are meeting and working on technical issues.”

Turner responded to Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s concerns in a Dec. 3 letter. With the new water modeling data attached, he assured the agency of no negative impacts to water flow. As far as the state environmental department’s notes on nearby landfills, Turner said the agency underestimated the landfills’ sizes, and that complete excavation isn’t “a financially feasible option.” He added the project will include remedial actions for the landfills that “will far exceed” any previous clean-up effort. 

While he understands the apprehensions about aspects of One Lake, Turner expressed frustration over the degree of criticism. 

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that folks that are worried about our project are completely wrong in worrying,” he said. “That’s why we need to put real science and engineering in their hands for them to make an educated decision. But there’s a lot of emotion attached to some of these environmental groups in the way they talk to folks, and they have gotten people concerned and fearful over what’s going to happen to their communities. That’s just unwarranted.”

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Dallas Quinn with Pearl River Vision Foundation holds a map of the proposed widening of the Pearl River for the One Lake. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

For Quinn, One Lake is an opportunity to bring a spark to his hometown. He sees the lone boat ramp to the Pearl River in Jackson, the one Lockhart uses for his tours, as emblematic of a state state of affairs.

“Right now, I don’t think Jacksonians have an ownership of the river because they don’t have access to it,” Quinn said. “As someone who grew up in Jackson and grew up going down to the river, I know how big of a benefit this could be for everyone. 

“If the district can build this plan but also reconnect people to the river and allow them real access, that is a great benefit for this city, in the form of recreation as well as in the form of additional funds coming into the city that are so desperately needed right now.” 

Looking ahead

Turner said he hopes to have the new environmental study ready and sent to the Corps of Engineers by the end of January. That will then kick off a roughly six month process in which federal and state agencies can give their input on One Lake. At the conclusion of those six months, the public will have 30 days to submit comments. Afterwards, the fate of One Lake will fall in the hands of a top-ranking presidential appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense, who will have the final say.

If approved, the process would then require a typically one-year long pre-construction and design procedure. Using those estimates, construction on One Lake would begin at the earliest in late 2021. 

The political support for One Lake has been mixed. The late U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran worked in his role in the Appropriations Committee to get funding for the project. But neither his successor, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, nor her colleague Sen. Roger Wicker, have taken a stance. 

Rep. Thompson sent a grocery list worth of environmental and economic concerns about One Lake during the comment period, and in 2018 Rep. Scalise helped pass legislation intended to increase the project’s vetting.

A spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann told Mississippi Today that he supports the project. Between 2007 and 2019, John McGowan donated $67,000 to Hosemann’s campaigns, according to campaign finance records

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Chris Lockhart, owner of Capital City Kayak Adventures, paddles down the Pearl River Wednesday, October 17, 2018 at Mayes Lake Campground in Jackson. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

In the meantime, Lockhart simply worries what One Lake’s construction would mean for his kayaking business. 

“This is where I do most of my kayaking and tours, and if they were digging around, I imagine it would be inaccessible for me,” Lockhart said. “You’re just going to have a big cesspool of garbage….If it looks like a big muddy pit during construction, I’m not bringing folks out here.”

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Water from the Pearl River rises to near Old Brandon Road in Jackson, Miss. Thursday, Jan. 16, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

As rain has pounded Jackson in the early days of this new year, again flooding swaths of the city, there has been renewed angst over finding a solution before history repeats itself.

The Clarion-Ledger, in an April 1979 editorial, made an ominous warning: “It may be that no one person or agency is to blame; everyone is. We have provoked the Pearl by disrespecting her natural (and ancient) boundaries; now she has provoked us by disrespecting ours.

“She was here first, and she will remain here long after any man or woman now living has died. We can’t stanch the river, and she can’t drown us. An accommodation, an armistice, is in order… the real job ahead of us is to negotiate a pact with the Pearl.”

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Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on NBC.com. In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.