Whose River Is it? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Whose River Is it?

In the past weeks, the Jackson Free Press has spent some time looking into the Two Lakes plan for flood control and economic development on the Pearl River—a plan that's come back so many times from the grave that it makes "Night of the Living Dead" seem like a History Channel documentary.

Some readers have wondered: "Why all the fuss, JFP?"

Answer: This is big. The JFP is on record against undertaking a project of unprecedented scope (whatever the estimate, Two Lakes will cost a significant fraction of a billion dollars, if not more) without fully exploring players, motivations and consequences.

Plus, the Two Lakes saga is a beast of a story to unravel. Pushed relentlessly by oilman John McGowan, the evolving plan has been considered many times by the Levee Board and the Corps of Engineers and, yet, never fairly, according to the McGowan camp.

McGowan may be right about the fairness thing; but if it hasn't been fully studied, then that still means it's unproven. Right now, it's a pricey gamble (in cash and ecology), with only McGowan and his paid staffers on record saying it'll work.

There's a lot of stuff we could do with those millions, and the core question generally comes down to this—if we build the levees the Corps of Engineers approved with $133 million in federal dollars committed, would that be good enough? Could we "green" the levees, use the right-of-way for urban parks, biking, hiking and access to the river for canoeing and fishing? And what is the relative effectiveness of the levees for flood control? Would they be 90 percent effective in a 200-year storm, perhaps? Are we happy with that?

Or, do we need the Two Lakes plan, which proponents say is more effective in combating a 200-year event (like 1979's Easter Flood), and opponents say doesn't take into account the additional development in and near the flood plain.

McGowan has shown contempt for environmental concerns of the project, but now an effort may be on to "green" the project as McGowan has ditched his private plan and augured back onto a trajectory that will require support of the Levee Board. The Board is currently on record as supporting a compromise "One Lake" plan, but it has since seen significant turnover in its membership.

Then there's this: Two Lakes proponents say it's a massive economic-development boon for Jackson and its neighbors, while levees are unworkable for eco-devo. I disagree with the latter point, having personally seen greenways, parks and transportation corridor projects reap huge development rewards. In cities like Boulder and Denver, Colo., Portland, Ore, and Athens, Ga., they build condos next to the bike paths and hiking trails and charge extra for the pleasure of living there.

Then there's the question of what motivates the folks on the Levee Board—mayors in Flowood, Pearl, Richland and Jackson—who have their own game plans.

Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads is an opponent of Two Lakes and a supporter of the Airport Parkway project, a $400 million toll road that could be called the Jackson Emptyway, moving people quickly out of downtown after work to Flowood's (and Pearl's) explosion of suburban retail malls and housing. The Airport Parkway would have to cross the Pearl to get from here to there, and flooding the Pearl into lakes would make building that road more difficult and expensive.

I'm currently reading Richard Florida's "Who's Your City," the latest book by the creator of the "creative class" concept. This book specifically refutes the notion that since people can "work anywhere" thanks to technology, that where you live doesn't matter. His suggestion is that where you live may be the most important decision you make.

Thriving cities show certain characteristics—dense populations, lots of entertainment and cultural amenities, and a rich talent pool of folks who do the sort of work that defines the region. Silicon Valley offers lots of tech workers and venture capitalists; New York and London offer lots of jobs in finance; China offers lots of opportunities in manufacturing and product development.

What cam Jackson offer a new generation of workers? Some see Two Lakes as an integral economic engine for the city.

My response is that what Jackson needs more than a lake is support for the arts, a vibrant nightlife, urban living opportunities, city-dwelling entrepreneurs, heart-pumping recreational opportunities, and promising high-tech industries such as medical technology and biotech.

That doesn't necessarily include a $250 million lake, particularly if that lake's development is largely private housing or if access to the lake is in any way impeded by private-property boundaries. That's a retirement community, not a 21st-century city.

Flood mitigation should be green, do-able, sustainable and modern, with "let's go walkinҔ recreational opportunities at its core. The condos will follow.

Now, McGowan's plan is to convince the Levee Board that it must vote for the Two Lakes plan as the "locally preferred plan" in order to place it into the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process. Then it would be evaluated against the Levee Plan (and other viable options, including doing nothing) for its effectiveness, impact and to determine what environmental mitigation is necessary.

This is a curious gauntlet to run, as McGowan's apparent disdain for government, regulation and environmentalism is something he's running smack into right now, as he's going to need help in all of those areas if Two Lakes is ever going to work.

My reminder: It's not a private river. It belongs to all of us.

Which leads to my next question: With all due skepticism ... what does "locally preferred plan" really mean, and will McGowan's tune change if Two Lakes receives that status from a newly constituted Levee Board?

Right now, they're all about love, harmony, "green" and "getting it into NEPA" so it can be studied fairly.

But what would they say after the vote is counted? We'll be watching the Levee Board, monitoring Mayor Johnson's participation, and we will let you know as much of the inside story as we can get out hands on in order help this key decision get made correctly here in the Metro. The future of the Pearl is way too important for us to ignore.

Read the JFP's full coverage of Two Lakes and other Pearl options at http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/index.php/pearlriver/.

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