Legislator Becky Currie voices her disapproval of flood control options posed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, during a public meeting held regarding Pearl River flooding, at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Sparkman Auditorium in Jackson, Wednesday, May 24, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Federal officials repeatedly reminded an emotional room of Jacksonians that they have yet to pick a flood control plan for the capital city. Still, nearly all the comments at Wednesday’s public meetings centered on one design.

As has been the case for over a decade now, One Lake dominated the discussion on curbing flooding from the Pearl River.

Staff from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent about four hours on Wednesday on a stage at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson, listening to what flood victims, politicians, businessmen, and other concerned residents had to say about the controversial proposal.

The agency is starting a new environmental analysis of several options that include the One Lake proposal, voluntary buyouts, elevation or other floodproofing, a hybrid of those options, or an alternative that has yet to be presented to the public. Corps officials alluded to a proposal from the University of California Berkeley that they were looking into.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representatives Brandon Davis (left) with Christopher Klein (center) and Robyn Colosimo, discuss proposed Pearl River flood control options and field questions, during a public meeting held at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Sparkman Auditorium in Jackson, Wednesday, May 4, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

One Lake is the result of a decades-long effort among local officials to prevent flooding in Jackson like what happened in 1979 and, more recently, in 2020. The proposal would widen the Pearl River for several miles next to Jackson. Supporters say the plan would reduce flooding by giving the river more room to flow, and also point to business opportunities created within the plan’s footprint. Opponents argue it would threaten wetlands downstream, harm struggling species, and wouldn’t provide the flood protection that the $340 million project advertises.

According to its current timeline, the Corps will release a draft of the analysis in September, hold a 45-day public comment period, and then come out with a final proposal in December. Then, Assistant Secretary of the Army of Civil Works Michael Connor will make a final decision around January of next year. Corps representatives said that decision could include no action if none of the options meets their criteria.

Citizens and stakeholders have until June 30 to submit a comment, which they can do through the Corps’ website.

Many of the comments supporting One Lake focused on economic improvement just as much as they focused on flood control.

“It’s way past time for this project to come to action,” Tamika Jenkins, executive director of the Hinds County Economic Development Authority, said. “If we have national news about flooding, companies are not going to come here.”

Socrates Garrett, a contractor and well-known business figure in the city, said Jackson has limited opportunities such as One Lake for economic growth.

“The only potential that (Jackson) has is within the (Pearl River) footprint,” Garrett said. “The only opportunity that we have now is to make this river, that God blessed us with, be a blessing for the citizens of Jackson, and provide the economic opportunity that makes this place become a tourist attraction, makes us have a river beach front that we can walk on, that we have hotels in the middle of the river, that we have all these businesses that are surrounded. It’s the only chance Jackson has to grow and attract a new tax base.”

District 1 Supervisor Robert Graham questions U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reps, during a public meeting held regarding Pearl River flooding, at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Sparkman Auditorium in Jackson, Wednesday, May 24, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Those sentiments echoed throughout the night, including from pastors in Jackson — including Greg Divinity of Vineyard Church, CJ Rhodes of Mount Helm Baptist Church, and Ronnie Crudup of New Horizon Church — other local business figures, such as restaurant owner Jeff Good and Visit Jackson CEO Rickey Thigpen, and education leaders as well, including Renee Cotton, Chief of Staff at Hinds County Community College.

A bipartisan group of local and state lawmakers also pledged their support.

“We believe that the proposed project provides protection, opportunity and extends benefits to minority and low-income households in Jackson,” said Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, who said that One Lake would also help address a “chokepoint” that exists in between the city’s current levees, leading to worse flooding in certain areas.

Other political figures supporting the project included Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, Hinds County Supervisor Robert Graham, former Hinds County Republican Party Chairman Pete Perry, Richland Mayor Pat Sullivan, Jackson Councilman Ashby Foote, and Rep. Shanda Yates, I-Jackson. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has also given his backing to One Lake.

Several backers also pointed to the recent support from Jackson’s third-party water manager Ted Henifin. Henifin said in a press release that the plan would allow the city to build a new treatment plant at a more optimal location for distribution, and where it’d be less susceptible to flooding.

But while supporters zeroed in on the financial benefits of building the project, opponents of One Lake also latched onto that very point.

“The big picture is not being shown,” said Rep. Ken Morgan, R-Morgantown. “This thing is one of the biggest realty scams that ever took place in the state of Mississippi.”

Multiple opponents shared that view.

“One Lake is a private real estate development scheme masquerading as a flood control project,” Lea Campbell with Mississippi for a Green New Deal said.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed flood control options are viewed during a public meeting held at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Sparkman Auditorium in Jackson, Wednesday, May 24, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Elected leaders of downstream communities, including Monticello Mayor Martha Watts and Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said that creating a lake would disrupt the flow south of Jackson, including for large employers like Georgia Pacific that rely on water intake.

“Don’t come looking south of Jackson for a vote, let me assure you, because we’re all mad,” Currie said.

At a Tuesday meeting in Slidell, Louisiana, other downstream residents voiced similar concerns.

While most comments took a stance on One Lake, others simply urged the Corps to find the best solution.

“The main solution I want to see is what we can implement the fastest,” said Shawn Miller, who said flooding has already displaced him twice since moving to Jackson in 2018.

In addition to the Corps’ website, commenters can e-mail PearlRiverFRM@usace.army.mil, and or mail their feedback to: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, CEMVK-PMP, 4155 Clay Street, Vicksburg, MS, 39183-3435.

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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.