Pearl River flooding: Tug and pull over best way to deal with river escalates after 3rd-highest crest on record

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

The Pearl River seen from a Rockport bridge Wednesday, February 19, 2020.

This year’s Jackson flooding has elevated the stakes for both sides of a years-long debate over whether or not to proceed with the One Lake project.

The $350 million flood control proposal has gained recent attention over the last few weeks with the Pearl River climbing to 36.7 feet at the capital city, the third-highest peak on record. The overflow damaged over 400 homes in Hinds and Madison counties, and as of Monday the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency was still monitoring flooding downstream.

On Wednesday, environmental groups and a concerned downstream mayor reiterated their objections to the project, which would dam and widen the river near Jackson. Their concerns, echoed by Rep. Bennie Thompson in a 2018 letter, range from impacts on endangered species and depletion of wetlands to unacknowledged infrastructure costs around bridges and landfills.

“Our interests represent a very broad and growing group of concern that has been expressed regarding the One Lake project,” said Jill Mastrototaro of Audubon Mississippi. Representatives for the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club and Healthy Gulf also presented, as well as Monticello Mayor Martha Watts. “Those groups are not just the conservation community, but municipalities, counties, faith groups, business interests, key sectors of our economy.”

Last Friday, One Lake’s local sponsor, the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District, or the levee board, held a public meeting to provide analysis on the project’s flood protection potential.

Between Northeast Jackson, Downtown Jackson, and Flowood, water seeped into 222 structures, according to estimates provided by the project’s contracted engineering firm. Based on its elevation analysis of those structures, the firm, Mandrop Engineering Services, said One Lake would have prevented inundation in 205, or 92 percent, of the buildings.

Only in 1979, the flood of record for Jackson, and 1983 has the Pearl climbed higher in the capital city.

“I want the residents of Jackson to know that I’m concerned about the impact that the increased rainfall in recent years has on their lives,” said levee board member and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. 

The levee board submitted the final environmental study of the project to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Army earlier this month, beginning a months-long federal review process.

Offering an alternative remedy, opponents on Wednesday highlighted raising the levees along the river as well as offering voluntary buyouts to floodplain residents. As required by the National Environmental Policy Act, One Lake sponsors included alternatives in their study, which mention those options. But, as Mastrototaro argued, the study only looked at buying out every structure in the 100-year floodplain, giving that option a $2 billion price tag.

“It made One Lake the most financially attractive option,” she said.

In January, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries submitted a letter to its federal counterpart regarding the bottom 100 miles of the Pearl River that flow through its state. Last fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said One Lake would not harm endangered species in the project area. But in its letter, LDWF expressed concerns over what damming the river would mean for several species, especially oysters which rely on certain water flow rates.

“LDWF is not opposed to providing flood protection in Jackson, Mississippi and the surrounding areas,” the Jan. 7 letter reads, “however, we too have concern with the tentatively selected plan presented.”

In its assessment, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relied on new water modeling data from the levee board, which the sponsors claim shows no impacts on water quality or quantity. The new data, which the board has also sent to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, has not yet been made public.

At the news conference, Watts reiterated her concerns of how the project would impact Monticello, specifically to two large paper mills that depend on intake from the river.

“I have empathy for all that Jacksonians and Rankin County folks have gone through in this recent event,” she said. “We’re suffering also. We have substantial damage to our banks due to the sudden opening and closing of the (Ross Barnett Reservoir)… The river is everyone’s river, you can’t have one area take proprietorship. ”

At Friday’s levee board meeting, local leaders emphasized the urgency of finding a solution.

“There’s nothing worse than to see what’s left of a flood,” said Gary Rhoads, mayor of Flowood, the board’s president. “It’s devastating, and worse than a fire. We’re all working together here, both sides of the river.”                       

Amid flooding in other areas of the state, including downstream along the Pearl River and over 450,000 acres of land underwater in the South Delta, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency director Greg Michel said the disasters have not over-stressed the agency’s capacity.

“Our agency remains strong when it comes to our resources,” he said in a statement to Mississippi Today. “We resource many of our response assets through county support in an effort to avoid overtaxing state resources.”

Click here for information on local shelters and procedures for reporting damages.

Click here for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s interactive map on the Pearl River flooding.