McGowan Questions Levee Board's ‘Backbone' | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

McGowan Questions Levee Board's ‘Backbone'

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Front from left: Pearl Mayor Brad Rogers and Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. listened last September to the Corps' announcement that it will not recommend a lake plan for flood control along the Pearl River.

Would-be Two Lakes developer John McGowan reacted strongly this week to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers statement that it was not taking seriously his or any other plan to create lakes around the Pearl River, preferring a comprehensive levees plan to control flooding. McGowan's strongest words, though, were for the mayors and other members of the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District Levee Board who, he said, did not stand up strongly enough for his vision.

"Did you see those mayors sitting up there? The Corps were basically telling those mayors to basically shove the lake plan up your ass. Did you see anybody stand up and challenge them on the facts? Where's the backbone? I've got an army that doesn't shoot," McGowan told the Jackson Free Press Tuesday, the day after the Levee Board met with the Corps in Vicksburg.

McGowan said that if a lake plan is to be shut down because of either high costs or environmental issues than it ought to be shot down through a largely public vetting process, not because of what he believes to be the Corp's bias against his plan, which he has pushed for many years and in different versions. His current one consists of 4,133-acre lake containing 36 islands ranging in size from 1.6 acres to 40 acres, that he promises he could build for $336 million to $400 million—much less than a simpler alternative "one lake" plan that would create one 1,500-acre lake costing about $605 million. The Corps indicates that it will reject either plan due to cost and environmental concerns.

Corps: Don't Waste Time
The Corps has made no secret in recent months that it does not buy McGowan's version of the "facts." It is sticking to its 2007 projection that the McGowan plan will cost $1.4 billion, with $490 million dedicated to channel excavation, $204 million for engineering and design, and $163 million for land purchases, eminent domain and legal issues. The Corps also anticipates $149 million required to remove a discontinued landfill near downtown Jackson, on the Hinds County side of the river and $136 million for island construction.

McGowan has stated that he can complete the project for much less, denying the need for pumping stations, which the Corps includes for an extra $89 million and by rejecting the need for buttressing the new islands. McGowan says the island retention walls are not necessary to hold the islands in place, though environmentalists argue that an unacceptable percentage of the islands will break away and float downriver as sediment to choke the river.

The Corps considers the old McGowan plan unfeasible in offering an estimated $16 million in annual economic benefits while costing $84 million in annual maintenance. It does not see either lake plan as feasible.

But long-time supporters of McGowan's vision—several of which sit on the Levee Board—have been slow to comprehend the Corps' message.

With McGowan in the room Monday in Vicksburg, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chief of Project Management Doug Kamien said the Corps would seriously consider only the levees plan because any further investment in a lake plan would run into the brick wall of environmental mitigation.

Kamien said that if the Levee Board decides to move forward with the Corps' recommendation of expanding existing levees along the Pearl, they will begin an 18-month process that will cost the board $500,000. The Corps predicts that total costs for the comprehensive levees plan would be $206 million, with about $115 million coming from the federal government. Earlier federal estimates suggested the federal government would provide $133 million.

The Levee Board could insist on pushing the Corps to analyze the ins and outs of a lake plan, although Kamien recommended against that option. The Corps, he said, will always endorse a levees-only plan over a lake plan, no matter how varied the size of the lake. He urged the Levee Board to pursue a levees-only plan to avoid needless investment in a lake plan that the Corps would only renounce at the end of a long, expensive investigation.

"We figure a study for a lake plan would take another four years, and (cost) $4 million total. At the end of those four years, we'd be back in the same place we are now, with the Corps recommending a levee plan, and the $1 million cost would still (need to) be in place to move forward with the levee plan," Kamien told the Levee Board.

Damming Is as Damming Does
Levee Board member Socrates Garrett believes that some version of a lake plan could promote development and raise property values inside the city of Jackson, and said he was disappointed by the Corps' assessment. Garrett said he still had expected the Corps to consider some combination of a lake and levee-plan.

"Economic development and flood control are really our desire," Garrett said. "One of those alternative (lake) plans shows significant cost reductions and flood protection and economic development. It's a really attractive proposition. At the very minimum, it seems we could get that plan looked at."

Kamien said the Corps is basing its decision almost exclusively on the environmental impacts of both lake plans. "We're not disputing the flood reduction or the economic development," Kamien said. "The federal government has very strict guidelines in how we're going to proceed, and we're going to base our decisions on what's in the federal government's interest."

Levee Board attorney Trudy Allen disputed the Corp's interpretation of the federal government's reliance upon environmental impact, arguing that new federal legislation passed in 2007 softened the government's stance on the plan's environmental impact.

Allen argued that the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 (initially vetoed by President Bush as lacking fiscal discipline, but overridden in both the House and Senate) exempted a local lake plan from some financing restraints by allowing local government and investors to help foot the development bill, so long as the plan was recognized as a "locally preferred" option.

She said that law also exempted the project from some environmental restraints.

"(The law) doesn't say it needs to have the lowest environmental impact. It says it has to be environmentally acceptable. That's the will of Congress: environmentally acceptable, technically feasible, and provides at least the same level of flood reduction as the (levee plan). I'm not entirely certain how you come to the conclusion without actually laying everything out," Allen said.

Kamien said, however, that all attempts to dam the river is still an act of damming of the river—what the Corps calls "impoundment"—and would require more environmental mitigation and expense than the levees-only plan.

"We've studied the impoundment from the reservoir down to I-20. An impoundment is an impoundment is an impoundment, and I think we're pretty accurate on the environmental impact. As I interpret the board resolution, they want the impoundment studied to the various degrees of variation, but it's still an impoundment, and that's how we come to that conclusion," Kamien said

He added that the Water Resources Development Act was not meant to undermine federal environmental laws.

Fish or Cut Bait
The Corps postponed Sept. 30 deadline in August for the Levee Board to come to an agreement on a flood-control plan, all the while promising no recommendation on any plan other than levees. Meanwhile, the Corps waits for the Levee Board to deliberate its next decision.

Until the next meeting, the Levee Board still has a third alternative to moving forward with a Levee Plan or a problematic lake plan: To terminate any study on flood control along the Pearl River at no extra cost. The decision means the Corps will make no more attempts to mitigate flooding in Jackson, possibly reducing to a useless gesture the millions of dollars the Levee Board and the Corps invested in feasibility study plans over the years.

Corps District Commander Col. Michael Wehr asked both parties to consider agreeing on a plan soon, arguing that nothing was getting accomplished as long as the Levee Board and the Corps continued to press their disagreements: "How long do we hold flood control at bay to get through NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act approval)? …If there is a solution out there, the collective minds in this room can work it out, if we can get past our paradigms we've been locked into. We don't want the whole thing held hostage."

Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. attempted to look at the bright side to a levees-only plan before the meeting ended, asking if the Corps could adapt the levees to be more pedestrian- friendly.

Kamien said the local planner would have to pay for he additions.

The Levee Board scheduled a planning session between 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Oct. 12 to consider the Corps' information.

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