Lessons From Texas? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Lessons From Texas?

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Engineers are comparing the scenic Trinity River project in Fort Worth, depicted here, to the local Levee Board's continuing effort to create a lake plan for the Pearl River.

The Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District can take a lesson from Fort Worth, Texas, Waggoner Engineering owner Joe Waggoner said at the Oct. 27 Levee Board meeting.

Waggoner drew a comparison between an ongoing river-development project in Fort Worth to the Levee Board's single-lake proposal for the Pearl River.

"I think you should consider going out to visit this area," said Waggoner, whose company does some engineering work for the Levee Board and who supports the Board's decision to promote damming the Pearl River to create a 1,200-acre lake. "This is a combination Corps project with a local sponsor, only they've gotten their feasibility study approved by the Corps, and they've begun construction on it. ... The whole project will be ready in about 2021."

By comparison, the local Levee Board has only recently convinced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider a lake plan for the Pearl River in its upcoming feasibility study on Pearl flood control. For years, the Corps has steadfastly refused to include a lake plan in the study because it clashed with Corps mandates to only approve and fund a flood-control plan with the least environmental impact. The Corps has insisted that a plan to expand existing levees carries the least environmental risk.

Waggoner said both Jackson's lake project in Jackson and the Texas plan offer flood control, economic development and recreation. The Texas plan produces 800 acres of developable area, while the most recent lake plan endorsed by the Levee Board would open 1,000 acres to new development if the Corps gives it the go-ahead. Both plans offer considerable potential for mixed-use development, commercial, retail, and pedestrian walking trails and open space.

Both the Pearl and Trinity rivers have an annual average peak flow of about 30,000 to 40,000 cubic feet per second according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Over the last 120 days, the USGS says the Pearl averaged 13,688 cubic feet of discharge per second, while the Trinity River averaged a slightly higher rate of 16,435 cubic feet per second. Both rivers reached a record peak of about 120,000 cubic feet per second, although the Pearl hit its record in 1979, while Trinity did its worst flood damage in the 1940s.

The projects differ in other regards. Developers of the Trinity River project plan to divert the river through a 1.5-mile bypass featuring high levees, while using flood-control gates and valley storage areas to maintain the water depth of the original winding riverbed. The Trinity project makes the original lake bed a bastion of stable, flood-free development and creates a modest 33-acre lake.

The Pearl plan, in contrast, would install underwater dams beneath the Pearl River and deepen the river channel, creating a 1,200-acre lake that may or may not effectively hold flood waters without the addition of a levee expansion. The Corps has yet to determine the necessity of levees in the feasibility study. The Levee Board voted to pursue the one-lake plan "with or without levees," depending on what the Corps determined would provide adequate flood control.

The Trinity River project price tag is $909 million with a $435 million local share, while Levee Board engineers suspect the Pearl lake development could run $500 million. Both projects have the benefit of a 50 percent federal share in the cost, but the Trinity project is already off the ground in terms of funding for its local share. The federal sponsor kicked in 50 percent, while the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County dedicated a combined $17 million to the cause. Other local sponsors include the Trinity River Vision Authority.

A spokeswoman for Trinity River Vision Authority told the Jackson Free Press that the Tarrant Regional Water District dedicated $64 million to the construction of the bypass channel and bridges, courtesy of natural gas and drilling revenue along District-owned lakes. Besides the $64 million seed money, the Tarrant Regional Water District also invested $17.5 million to buy land for the project and kicked in a separate $226 million loan to the tax-increment financing deal that makes possible the local share portion of the funding.

A TIF plan uses predicted tax gains from a proposed development to finance that same development. By borrowing against anticipated property-tax revenues, a city, county or government authority relies on the new development to fund the bond, which the government agency sells on the bond market.

The difference between the Trinity and a local King Edward TIF, however, is that the Tarrant Regional Water District made the loan to a development sponsor, the non-profit Trinity River Vision Authority, until the TIF can start generating money. They also generously extended their TIF to 40 years. They can do this because the district had access to $160 million in surplus funds as recently as June, and predicted another $30 million more in annual revenue generated from oil and gas royalties.

The Levee Board, comparatively, does not have the benefit of any oil or mineral revenues. In fact, the Levee Board has yet to iron down exactly how they plan to fund the local share. Mayors on the Levee Board are hesitant to speak of tax increases on Hinds and Rankin County property home-owners, and the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review predicted that funding flood control in the area will be difficult, considering how easily legislators shot down bills making the Levee Board the local sponsor of a $38 million levee expansion in 1995 and 1996.

Nevertheless, Levee Board Chairman Billy Orr said he and some members of the board should make plans to visit the people behind the Trinity River project, in hopes of gaining some insight on a funding mechanism.

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