Saving Two Lakes: Is It Worth It? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Saving Two Lakes: Is It Worth It?

Photo by Melissa Webster

Also see: Publisher's Note: The Changing Saga of Two Lakes

The Pearl River is an easy force of nature to contend with, providing you are an optimist about it. An optimist, for example, would point out that it has only totally inundated Jackson's downtown area twice in the last full century. A more practically minded person, however, would see the 1930s photos of people slogging through two feet of water and carefully note that the spot in the picture is the one that now holds the $70 million King Edward Hotel and the $65 million Jackson Convention Complex. A more recent example of Pearl River shenanigans would be the 1979 Easter flood, when the river ignored partial levees and rose to inundate the Jackson fairgrounds and portions of Flowood and Pearl, causing a devastating $200 million worth of damage.

History books record the steps by which Jackson's first residents founded the city, but little is known about whether they knew they were setting up camp next to a swamp that becomes a big lake twice every 100 years. Perhaps they should have noted the local fauna, like various species of Pearl River fish that scientists conclude get many of their nutrients from the freshly inundated detritus of newly flooded land.

Stubborn McGowan
Jackson oil man John McGowan is, in many ways, a force of nature himself. McGowan and McGowan Working Partners have been pushing a plan to dam the Pearl River and create an island—or a series of islands, depending on the year—between Hinds and Rankin counties. Despite the shape of the landmasses within McGowan's lake, the plan has always centered on the inundation of the wetlands between the Ross Barnett Reservoir and the abandoned Jefferson Street landfill.

More than 10 years in the making, the plan's most recent incarnation involves a 4,133-acre lake containing 36 islands ranging from 1.6 acres to 40 acres. That particular plan was up before the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District earlier this month.

McGowan wants the board to accept his plan as the "locally preferred" alternative to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' original plan to complete a series of levees lining the river between Hinds and Rankin counties, and last week McGowan seemed confident that he will get that support.

While wistful of the idea, the levee board has offered only a small degree of real faith in the McGowan plans over the decade he's been selling different versions of Two Lakes. In March 2008, the board voted to approve a $200 million plan that only involved a levee system over the Two Lake project with a 4-to-3 vote. Later last year, the same board voted to consider as its preferred plan a less ambitious lake project consisting of one 1,500-acre lake with only two islands totaling 215 acres.

Commonly called the Lower Lake plan, the single-lake project incorporates the brunt of the levees-only plan endorsed by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in the mid-1990s. In addition to the levees, the plan adds a weir to the Pearl River just south of Interstate 20, flooding the Pearl between the levees to form a single lake from Interstate 20 to just north of Lakeland Drive, across from downtown Jackson.

McGowan's various lake plans also have competed with the proposed $424 million Airport Parkway connecting downtown Jackson to Jackson-Evers International Airport. A commission overseeing the construction of the parkway has already sallied forth with land acquisition for the road, though moving construction further forward is difficult if the levee board has yet to decide the size of the lake running beneath it.

"I can't get through to those guys. I can't do it," spat a disgusted McGowan to the Jackson Free Press last year in response to the board's vote to endorse the levees-only plan. "I guess I should just go back to working the oil fields. These guys won't listen to me."

The board had a hard time coming to grips with the McGowan plan because of the $1.4 billion price tag the Army Corps of Engineers tacked on it in a 2007 economic feasibility study. McGowan said that price is inflated because it includes levees that his plan didn't call for, as well as a relocated island (only two islands were in the 2007 version of McGowan's plan) and water pumps to keep Jackson creeks from becoming flooded during heavy rains.

Richland Mayor Mark Scarborough said his city would need additional pumps to prevent flooding caused by Neely Creek and Squirrel Branch Creek, while Hinds County Emergency Director Larry Fisher warned that flash-flood water spiraling down Town Creek and Eugene Creek would run into a McGowan-spawned lake with an unnaturally high water level than that of the original river, leaving the floodwater with nowhere to go but back up over the creek banks.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called McGowan's plan (which it dubbed the "LeFleur Lakes" project) "economically infeasible" as a federal project, though the corps has yet to publicly release the $2.8 million study because it says it is still part of a deliberative process. The Corps' basic question was: Does the federal government get one dollar's worth of flood control for every one dollar spent. Its conclusion was "no."

The Money Issues
McGowan argues that his newest Two Lakes plan is considerably more beneficial than the Corps' plan, and considerably cheaper than the competing Lower Lake plan.

The Two Lakes price tag jumps around; it's currently hovering around $336 million to $400 million. Engineer Robert Muller, who works with McGowan, says the price fluctuates because the plan has yet to be submitted through the Environmental Protection Agency's vetting process-—the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA—wherein all interested parties get to tack on their cost issues.

Last Wednesday, at the Jackson Free Press, McGowan listed his plan's price at $336 million, a startling figure considering the less dramatic Lower Lake plan, currently pursued by Waggoner Engineering, is estimated to cost almost twice that.

Washington, D.C., consulting firm Economics Research Associates told the levee board last month that it estimates the Lower Lake plan to cost $605 million and expects the Army Corps of Engineers to provide $133 million for levee construction toward the project, with much of the rest coming from private, local and state sources.

Economic Research Associates' economic impact analysis of the Lower Lake plan divides the $605 million plan into four major components: $205 million for levee stabilization, $250 million for the actual lake construction, $50 million for property acquisition and a final $100 million for infrastructure (utilities, roads, water and wastewater transportation.)

McGowan is convinced he can beat that price by going cheap on construction costs, starting with engineering fees.

"We can build this flow course, build these two dams and relocate some utilities for $200 million," he said, adding that he has engineers who have promised to work for $2.3 million rather than the $275 million in engineering costs projected for the Lower Lake plan.

He has also cut back on the proposed islands. The Two Lakes plan had always involved dredging sand and clay from the bottom of the river, but his new island specs calls for merely dumping the dredged spoils over to the side as the machines dig away, creating about 10 islands along the Hinds County bank, and more than 20 islands along the Rankin County bank. Unlike the islands proposed in the $605 million plan, the only amenity provided to the islands is that they're above water.

"There's no erosion control," McGowan said, meaning no compacted earth or water walls to immediately keep the sand from melting away into sandbars. "I don't have one single strap of erosion control."

Imagine more than 30 sand castles sitting in water. Now imagine the resulting silt inching its way down the river, slowly choking the life out of the water downstream. This is an issue that the city of Jackson already had to deal with about six years ago, after the Department of Environmental Quality alerted the city that its water-treatment plant near Jackson's waterworks curve was dumping too much sand back into the water. (The sand is the undrinkable remnant of the purified river water the city supplies to its populace and nearby municipalities.) Extra sand getting dumped back into the river from the plant is a hazard to the stream's oxygen supply and spawns fish kills.

Then-Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. said the city had to invest $80 million to upgrade the plant during his term. The $80 million expenditure begs the question of how much it will cost to cover 37 inundated sand castles choking the river or silting up the southern weir.

Not much, McGowan assured, because it's "not gonna happen."

"We're building (the islands) out of sand, and sand erodes like hell. But I've been building things in swamps all my life. I've built 100 miles of roads out of sand. The lake is designed to not reach critical flow in a 100-year flood. Even if you put a 100-year flood in that lake, the flow rate will be less than what it takes to move a single grain of sand. It's so big (1,800 feet wide and it's 20 feet deep) that if you give it a 100-year flood, it'll reach a mean velocity of under two feet per second. Sand will not move," McGowan said, adding that even the water that rains on the sand will wash harmlessly into the lake and not move anymore."

The islands also will contain no water or sewer hook-ups and no connective roadways, meaning the island's new owners, be they a private individual or a local government will have to handle any transportation construction.

For this, construction comes cheap. In fact, development is limited almost to the dredging of the river, the two underwater dams and the construction of a new levee for Richland.

By the Numbers
Developer Leland Speed confirmed this week what many might not yet get about the newest rendition of Two Lakes: "This is going to be a public project, or it ain't gonna work. We originally tried to do it with private investors, but I finally persuaded John, God bless him, that this isn't going to work. There are too many moving parts to this deal. It'll have to be a public project like the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District."

Public projects mean public costs, and the numbers add up quickly. By cutting costs sure to incite fury in environmentalists, McGowan projects a total cost of $336 million, a fraction of the cost of the Lower Lake plan. Still, the numbers mount for taxpayers after the total amount is tallied. The Corps has committed $133 million for a locally preferred plan that survives the NEPA process. Using the oil man's figures, the $133 subtraction leaves a $203 million hole—the source of McGowan's $200 million cost claim.

The levee district intends to commit tax money to the venture by borrowing up to $75 million—the maximum amount the levee district can borrow.

Big problem right there, however: The district will have to expand dramatically to afford the general obligation bond. Providing the expansion is approved by local landowners who must foot the bill through property taxes, the project still has $128 million in costs that it still has to cover.

A Morgan Keegan report presented May 11 to the levee board reveals that McGowan can expect to get another $25 million from the state Legislature in the form of an in-lieu payment. In-lieu payments amount to a purchase of services: The Legislature is essentially paying $25 million for the anticipated flood-reduction benefit that the state is receiving from property that already delivers no tax revenue to local municipalities.

The resulting budget hole is $103 million. Morgan Keegan anticipates the Mississippi Development Authority to step in at this point. The MDA is an adjunct of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who is reputed to be a fan of the Two Lakes plan, and Barbour runs appoints MDA members.

The MDA, under the Mississippi Major Economic Impact Act, can deliver another $25 million in fiscal incentives. That puts the budget hole at $78 million. At that point, developers have retrieved all the Corps money they can get, have borrowed $75 million, and got $50 million from the state.

Next comes debt service. The math tells us that McGowan now has a $78 million gap to close. This can be borrowed through the sale of general obligation bonds to a consortium of banks—the same method by which a municipal government finances anything from street paving to a new convention center. Only we have more than $78 million in debt. Any accountant looking to calculate the total debt must add back in the $75 million that the levee board had to borrow from itself (again, courtesy of Hinds and Rankin landowners), leaving the board with a total $153 million in borrowed money.

The average percentage attached to TIF bonds is 5 percent, so back-of-the-envelope calculations say that it takes $80,000 per year to finance debt service for $1 million. We're looking at 153 of those millions. Simple multiplication indicates that Hinds and Rankin counties will need to fork over $12 million a year to handle the new debt.

McGowan's own numbers, delivered through a May 11 preliminary county property tax summary and sourced from county financial statements, call for a mill increase for both Hinds and Rankin property owners resulting in $1.7 million. Simple division suggests home owners in both counties will need to contend with a 7.64 mill increase between the two of them in order to handle the new debt. Rankin County residents currently endure an ad valorem rate of 4.5 percent, while Hinds County suffers a 5.0 percent rate.

McGowan's numbers also include Madison County—which enjoys a 3.2 percent ad valorem rate. The inclusion of one of the state's more affluent counties in the financing plan is optimistic: Madison County enjoys no benefit from McGowan's plan, and is not likely to volunteer a tax increase for the benefit of a lower rate increase for Rankin and Hinds.

Even if McGowan were able to somehow wrangle a full $153 million loan from the state of Mississippi, the going rate for that loan would likely be 3 percent. A $153 million loan translates into a $55,000 per million per year price tag for every $1 million borrowed, amounting to an extra $8.4 million every year to handle the new debt. Both counties will need to shoulder a 5 percent mill increase to handle it.

Levee Board member and Richland Mayor Mark Scarborough said people working for the board have quoted him much higher figures. "A five mill increase is a pretty substantial increase for anybody, but we've still got to determine if it's five mills or 20 mills. That's the real question, because if it goes above five mill, the voters won't go for that at all," he said, adding that voters and board members should "take that 20-mill projection seriously."

"Nobody would go for it. We're only at 19 mills just running the city of Richland. We're not about to add 20 mills on homeowners and landowners for any lake project," he said.

Scarborough said he likes the plan better since McGowan added Richland levees this year, but said he's still nervous because the original numbers suggested taxpayers could be responsible for $800 million in costs not included in McGowan's plan, not to mention the new lakes' operational costs.

McGowan optimistically argues that the entirety of the counties will not have to handle the weight of the taxes, that local residents living directly in the flood zones, and thus benefiting from the flood control offered by the Two Lakes project, will happily carry the weight. "They'll accept a tax increase because they will be able to offset that tax increase with lower insurance rates," McGowan argued.

Speed said property tax increases on all Hinds and Rankin residents is a possibility. "If your property was flooding before and it won't flood now, … those people are going to get a serious increase in taxes. They deserve it, because they're being rescued from flooding. Their insurance is going down," Speed said. "If people get to vote on it, they'd get to decide. To me, the most democratic way to handle this is to put it to a vote. No one will force anybody to do anything."

Speed said new revenue generated from the sale or lease of lakeside property—similar to the land lease project around the Ross Barnett Reservoir, will eventually offset the tax hike. "Once you start this income from the sale or lease of land it offsets that, so you don't have that tax anymore. Any incremental taxes on people starts to go away," Speed said.

The more expensive $605 million Lower Lake plan could put even more of a tax burden on property owners if the numbers don't pan out right. Economic Research Associates' budgeting plan contends that the $605 million plan will be financed through six different sources. Advocates hope to make use of the same $133 million offered through the Corps, but they've also calculated $72 from unnamed local sponsors; a $50 million in-lieu payment from the state (McGowan only budgeted $25 million); and a $50 million state loan through MDA (Again, McGowan had expected only half of that amount). ERA has also budgeted in an extra $100 million, however, through a ground leasing program similar to the reservoir leasing scheme and $100 million in land value increases along the lake's periphery.

McGowan's figures could well creep up to Lower Lake numbers as he adds in costs that he has so far ignored. McGowan may be prematurely bragging about the $268 million difference between the two plans. The less ambitious Lower Lake plan is small enough to avoid tangling with a 1940s-era landfill sitting beneath the natural bluff near Jackson's downtown area. Mayor Johnson once attempted to deal with the landfill for the construction of his proposed Festival Park, but had to surrender the plan during his second term when the cost of removing the landfill proved insurmountable by meager city money.

Oddly, the more expensive Lower Lake plan will not have to contend with the landfill, though McGowan's cheaper $337 million plan—according to its map parameters—will definitely have to deal with it. McGowan said he has included the cost of getting rid of the toxic landfill in his $337 assessment, even though the cost of such a venture put a lock on Johnson's efforts.

The Two Lakes plan still lacks major elements likely required by the Corps and environmental groups before EPA will consider it, namely stabilization of the dredge spoils (islands).

Muller still puts the project's cost at about $337 million, but readily admits that the project's numbers must remain malleable. "You can't nail these numbers down until you have a project," Muller said. "When you have a project this big, numbers change. Fuel prices this year are radically different. The current number is $337 million; this includes higher engineering fees and flood control in Richland."

Muller, like Speed and McGowan, admitted that property taxes could go up, but believes people with flood insurance "are willing to accept a tax to offset their insurance expenses—a number that he estimated are considerably less than JFP's figures: "about $60 million."

Getting the Goods
Inundating the bulk of the floodplain between the Spillway dam in the north and Interstate 20 in the south will require plenty of real estate. A 4,133-acre lake is nothing to sneeze at. The Ross Barnett Reservoir contains 33,000 acres of water, and the new lake will creep up to its southernmost border at the Spillway.

McGowan told the JFP that his project will require 12,000 acres, and he admits that getting all that land isn't as easy as shaking a wad of cash in front of landowners: "We're going to have to [take] all that land, say $60 million or $70 million worth. It'll wind up being a government project, because I just couldn't get all those landowners to come together."

Speed said the necessity of eminent domain in assembling the property was the main reason for turning to public funding to finance it, because landowners appeared unwilling to commit their property for flooding.

McGowan has purchased land along the Pearl in expectation of new lakeside property, but his land is only a small portion of the land required. McGowan had approached other landowners to commit their land, and got a strong rejection. In fact, he said, only "three or four" landowners were willing to commit to a non-binding agreement that the land trade-off for convenience "was worth it to them."

"Now we're certain you'd be condemning it all, same as eminent domain," McGowan said.

Rep. John Mayo says he got a different message at a House Water Resource Committee meeting earlier this year. "My understanding is that all of that property is owned by individuals who are intent on developing it," said Mayo, who chairs the committee. "McGowan had a petition signed by most of the people going to be impacted in favor of the plan."

McGowan now, though, complains that he couldn't get more than 30 percent of landowners to sign on: "We can lease it back, but you'll never have a project like this without eminent domain."

The leasing aspect is a pivotal component of the public/private partnership that Two Lake developers want. The example of the public/private partnership referred to in the EPA analysis of the Lower Lake plan includes a public entity retaining control of island land, while the lake periphery is a combination of public and private ownership. McGowan envisions a similar scenario, with the 37 islands being divvied between government and private owners.

The option of a public/private ownership plan opens the possibility of a new revenue source through property leases, similar in scope to leases around the Ross Barnett Reservoir. There, home owners may own their home, but must lease the land upon which the home sits. The lease money fills the coffers of the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District, a state agency created to construct and manage the 33,000-acre Ross Barnett Reservoir and the 17,000 acres surrounding the lake.

That plan, according to Pearl River district officials, has begun to pay off after the reservoir's 40-year existence.

Even McGowan admits the big money and development advantage will take a long time to get here. "This won't be a money-maker for anybody for a long time. It'll take dead money. It's like somebody buying a tree farm. They plant the trees, and they can't harvest them for 30 years," McGowan said.

Still, the new lakefront property could eventually accrue huge windfalls for some property owners, while other owners of those 12,000 acres are destined to get trod on by eminent domain. "That's the whole crux of the eminent-domain battle. It will never be an easy battle to win," said Mayo, who acknowledges the contradiction inherent in the plan.

"Ostensibly, it's being offered to control flooding, and development is supposed to be a secondary benefit, but you've got this group claiming it won't completely control flooding, and some people supporting it who want to make a bunch of money."

Mayo takes no position on the plan, beyond the assurance that he will support whatever plan comes out of the levee district—providing all interested parties can agree on it.

Residents south of Jackson aren't in agreement, by any means.

Municipalities at War
Monticello Mayor Dave Nichols has long opposed the project.

"If this project goes forward, it'll put more water to the southern area below Jackson, Nichols told the Jackson Free Press in 2008, and referenced a marked increase in destructive erosion as a result of stronger river flow thanks to development in Jackson.

"Look at all the development that's taken place on Lakeland Drive. It has made the water move quicker, and if you come south, you'll see all the sloughing that's happened along the riverbanks. There's a house just above Monticello; during the last big rain about a year ago they lost about 20 feet of the embankment. They had to vacate the house because the river is right up at their house now," Nichols said. "I can show you another house where the bank has sloughed away about 16 feet, and there are other places all over. And it's all because of increased development. So now were going to go and put this big island in the middle of the river and … I hate to think of what will happen."

Monticello sits about 50 miles away from the proposed site of the Two Lakes, Lower Lake and levee developments. The mayor has become a budding environmentalist as of late, particularly when it comes to wetlands. The mayor describes the Jackson area wetlands as a sponge, which temporarily holds and filters flood water. He concludes that it's rarely a good idea for terrestrial-based organisms to build their houses on a sponge. Nevertheless, if the sponge-residents dispense with the sponge, they create a virtual water slingshot guaranteed to jet floodwater further downstream to the southern communities. He is confident that any further development along the Jackson section of the Pearl River could bring two more inches of water to Monticello and neighboring Columbia during periods of high water.

"Here's the thing about it. The engineering reports that the Pearl River Basin paid to have done several years ago said it could add up to two more inches to the stream around Monticello. I'm behind development around Jackson. Jackson needs it, but I'm not from Jackson, and I have to look out for the people who I am charged to protect here in Monticello. I'm sorry, but Monticello is prone to floods, and I don't want that getting any worse," Nichols said.

"McGowan claims that if the reservoir would change the way they operate, then his plan would work, but the reservoir, from what I understand, has no intention of changing the way they operate. Therefore, with those two pieces of information, I must oppose the project."

The Two Lake plan relies on the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District altering its operating model, changing the dam from a structure intended to provide drinking water to a structure providing flood control. The district is currently under contract to deliver just enough water over the dam for processing at the Curtis water treatment plant, and enough water to allow the Savannah Street waste water-treatment plant to discharge without immediately killing everything in the water south of it. There is no contract demanding the reservoir people protect the territory south of the dam from flooding.

Benny French, general manager of the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District, said the district would do what it could to facilitate the needs of the population below the dam, but it had to work within tight guidelines. "The thing is, there was not a lot of discussion on flood control in the original project design." French said. "There are some opportunities for the district to help, but we're not going to endorse anything before the levee board decides what plan it's going with anyhow."

During those longer seasons when the proposed developments aren't jetting extra flood water down to Jackson's southern neighbors it could be drying them out. Tulane University adjunct professor Barry Kohl, who studies hydraulics and ocean water levels, said in a Times-Picayune article that the new lakes built north of Louisiana on the Pearl River would reduce water flow and "cause additional problems with water availability in the lower Pearl" during the dry season.

"It could potentially starve the Pearl River Basin, the part that's in Louisiana," Kohl said, spawning oxygen depletions and fish kills and injuring Louisiana's tourism and fishing industry.

An enormous, shallow lake in the middle of the Pearl, with a flow rate low enough to avoid moving "a single grain of sand," forces the river water to languish for longer periods in one place, leaving it open to evaporation. The nature of the shallow lake also increases the water's surface area, making it a 4,133-acre evaporation pool, scientists say.

Muller denounced the water-lowering theory outright last week: "We run into this problem where people say things that aren't true. I had a conversation with a lady at the Times-Picayune where the folks down in Tammany Parish said if we install Two Lakes the Pearl will be lowered. They had nothing to substantiate that. ... Until you have a document that you can lay in front of the EPA and in front of the environmental groups, you can't debate the issues in an honest manner. Obviously, there will be mitigation, but we need a plan first."

Looking Toward the Environment
Heightened evaporation is only one component in a staggering list of complaints lodged by environmentalists against the flooding of almost 5,500 acres of wetlands and more than 3,400 acres of forest.

The Lower Lake Plan calls for flooding an area of the Pearl River that has already been artificially channelized to lower flood risks in the area. The smaller plan does call for the partial submerging of hiking trails and campgrounds in Mayes Lake, although environmentalists claim the inundation of the park can be avoided by installing levees between the lake and the park or by lowering the lakes water level.

Waggoner Engineering employee Barry Royals said lowering the lake level would raise costs on the $605 million project even higher, however. "If we lower the water level any lower, we'll have to deal with lake areas near the lower dam turning into partially submerged land during the dry parts of the year. You'll have weeds and stuff growing there, and it won't be very scenic or fit for development," he said.

"Now we could further dredge the lake bed in that spot, but you can imagine what that will do for costs."

Royals added that installing extra levees between the park and the lake also upped costs considerably, though Waggoner Engineering had no solid numbers on just how much at the time.

Another factor to be mindful of is the loss of wetlands habitat that building the lakes will inevitably mean. The hardwood wetlands beneath the Spillway dam contain cypress trees, colorful birds and a wide variety of reptile and mammal species. Naturalists claim even the bald eagle, which now lives in the Ross Barnett Reservoir area, could stand a chance of extending its territory further south into the city-side green space if the area remains undisturbed.

Robert Jones, a biologist at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, told the JFP in 2006 that the target area also contains some endangered species, including the rare sawback or map turtle, which is indigenous only to the sections of the Pearl River in Jackson and south of the city. The species does not proliferate even in the northern tributaries of the river. The Gulf sturgeon, a 200-million-year-old subspecies of the Atlantic sturgeon, also live in the area, and are have been listed as "threatened" under the United States Endangered Species Act since 1991. This is a likely nail in the coffin of any plan to alter the river under the Obama administration, said Melissa Samet, senior director of water resources at Washington naturalist advocacy group American Rivers.

"It's hard to describe how out of step this project is with the rest of America. They're trying to dam up a river to provide questionable flood protection when they ought to be providing wetland river restoration. A natural free-flowing river is an enormous asset. There is no justification whatsoever for the destruction of this area. This is a pie-in-the-sky project for someone who wants to make money."

American Rivers recently listed the Pearl River as one of the nation's most endangered rivers, specifically because of various plans to dam and flood it. Samet said the Obama administration is not likely to take kindly to the idea of destroying wetland habitat.

"Flooding wetlands is not the trend that the new Environmental Protection Agency is following these days," Samet said.

McGowan said even the Ross Barnett Reservoir would likely not have happened had developers attempted it in this day and age, but remains confident that all aspects of a plan to bury thousands of acres of increasingly precious wetland can be mitigated through the National Environmental Policy Act process.

The Politics of NEPA
With all the factors working against it, any lake plan on the Pearl needs the help of an influential politician to get started, and Two Lakes had some of Mississippi's best. Gov. Haley Barbour and Leland Speed—whose father orchestrated the Ross Barnett Reservoir in the mid-1960s—both want the latest plan to march forward.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency in a position to move the project forward, can only take into account the flood-control aspects of the plan, but has already questioned the cost of the flood reduction benefits of Two Lakes, and was not taking the plan very seriously in the 1990s.

The Corps clearly preferred a levee-only idea, arguing that it was not the federal government's prerogative to create high-end real estate. Their indifference was obvious in their delay in issuing a feasibility study on the plan. But Barbour and Speed wanted the Corps to step up and take the endeavor seriously.

The Corps has never officially released its taxpayer-funded $2 million feasibility study on the Two Lakes project, not even two years after completing it. Still, the report has been unofficially circulated, and the study shows that then-Congressman Chip Pickering directed the Corps, on Feb. 24, 2006, to get moving on the project. The order was to study only the Two Lakes project and the levees project and bring the Two Lake advocates a document upon which they could pursue a section 404 permit or complete the NEPA process. (Section 404 of the Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of dredged, excavated, or fill material in wetlands, streams, rivers, and other U.S. waters.)

The unreleased feasibility study introduces its findings with an account of Pickering's virtual dressing-down of the Corps. Though the report indicates no bitterness at the congressman's prod, the project's higher pricetag of $1.4 billion may suggest acrimony, as could be the Corps' refusal to even call it the "Two Lakes" project; it calls it the Lefleur Lakes project.

Doug Kamien, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Planning, Programs, and Project Management Division, was in a position back in 2006 to alert Pickering that the project would have to be stuffed with federal regulation before it could be seriously considered. Kamien did not return calls on the matter.

Gary Walker, the Corps' senior project management of the southeastern region, does not even describe Pickering's demand as any kind of marching orders, though he recalls Pickering "definitely had contact with the Corps" concerning the Two Lakes project at the onset of the Corps' feasibility study. The year 2007 brought some tailor-made federal legislation making the Two Lakes project all the more possible. The Water Resources Development Act of 2007 was initially vetoed by then-president George Bush. It was one of the few vetos his administration handed back to Congress.

"This bill lacks fiscal discipline," Bush explained in his veto message. "I fully support funding for water resources projects that will yield high economic and environmental returns to the nation, and each year my budget has proposed reasonable and responsible funding. … However, this authorization bill makes promises to local communities that the Congress does not have a track record of keeping."

The House successfully voted 361-to-54 to override the veto. The next day, the Senate successfully voted to override the veto with a 79-to-14. It was the first veto override of Bush's presidential term.

The legislation led the way for a public/private partnership to finance a Pearl project, allowing the Corps to go with a plan that was identified as "a locally preferred plan." There were certain stipulations that even if the project was not judged economically feasible, but provided the same level of flood protections and was environmentally sustainable, then the federal government could still dedicate money to the endeavor.

The law authorizes the secretary of the Army to construct the project generally in accordance with the plan described in the February 2007 Pearl River Watershed, Mississippi, Feasibility Study Main Report, Preliminary Draft, at a total cost of $205,800,000, with an estimated federal cost of $133,770,000 and an estimated non-federal cost of $72,030,000.

McGowan wants his plan to be the only plan on the Levee Board's table. He's asking the board to allow McGowan Working Partners to be an agent between the board and the Corps as the Corps moves the plan through the process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA also will consider environmental impact, mitigation efforts, and a comparison of alternatives, such as the Lower Lake Plan, the Levee Plan and the most affordable plan before the board: a plan to do nothing at all about the potential flood situation.

McGowan says his chances are good if his plan is the only one under consideration. He also admits it has little to no chance if the board does not select it as the "preferred" plan.

Once the plan gets into the NEPA process, the EPA will likely beat the plan to pieces, but McGowan's spokesman Dallas Quinn said it'll never even earn the chance to be a punching bag if it doesn't enter the process.

"Our top priority right now is to get to the point where we can work with environmentalists and the EPA and whoever else we need to work with to make this project acceptable to them, but we'll never get to that point if we never get into NEPA," Quinn said.

Pulling Political Strings
In the meantime, McGowan and his affiliates are pulling every string they can to make sure the board is favorable to getting Two Lakes into the system.
The May 18 edition of the Mississippi Business Journal quoted Muller as saying both Pearl and Jackson are soon to get new mayors, which could change the makeup of the levee board. A decision from the current board would be pointless, Muller said, so McGowan and company are biding their time until after the June 2 election.

They're obviously not sitting passive.

Pearl Mayor Jimmy Foster opposed the Two Lakes plan last year. Foster said he felt the Lower Lake plan was a more likely candidate to survive the arrows and knives of the EPA and voted in favor of it in hopes of moving forward with a reasonable flood control plan before the next 1979 Easter flood comes along.

McGowan's associates contributed heavily to Foster's opponent in the Republican primary this month, possibly helping Foster lose his bid for a fourth term to three-term alderman Brad Rogers in the primary. Campaign finance reports make clear that Rogers received $1,000 from McGowan Working Partners President David Russell, $1,000 directly from McGowan Working Partners, as well as $2,000 from McGowan affiliate William Lamar and $500 from company employee Charles Johnson.

Scarborough, who has preferred other plans over the Two Lakes plan in the past, said he understands that Foster's opponent benefited from money supporting the Two Lakes plan, but dismissed the chess game as "just how politics works." He added that he was nervous about what a wealthy oil man's money could do to his own future run for Richland mayor.

"It makes me nervous, but I'm going to vote my convictions on it, and I'll let the people here decide if they want me back or not," Scarborough said.

McGowan pushed his interest into the Jackson race as well. A political action committee, Better Jackson PAC, funded a series of political mailers attacking Democratic mayoral candidate Harvey Johnson Jr. in the final days leading up to the Democratic run-off election. The flyers cited bogus "dangerous rankings" under Johnson's earlier two terms as mayor, which ran counter to official FBI numbers showing a slow drop in violent crime under Johnson.

Johnson was an early supporter of the Two Lakes plan, but had grown disenchanted with the project, citing the myriad of difficult obstacles it was facing. Johnson said he would like to see the river used to beautify the city, but has proved unwilling to commit exclusively to the McGowan plan.

Johnson's opponent Marshand Crisler, on the other hand, unwaveringly supported the Two Lake plan, but when questioned by the Jackson Free Press editorial board, could not seem to cite any of the realistic roadblocks facing the plan.

Crisler's campaign out-earned Johnson 4-to-1, and during a May 14 run-off debate, Johnson questioned the influence campaign contributors were buying from Crisler. Crisler said that "there's not enough money to buy Marshand Crisler. I am my own person. I'm going to represent with distinction and honor, like I've done in the military and the council."

Johnson, though, said in the debate that Crisler had changed his loyalties due to Two Lakes donations: "I can recall a time when Mr. Crisler did not support the Two Lakes plan, but I now know that he does support Two Lakes. I suggest you look at his contributor list to see who the author of Two Lakes has contributed to. He has not contributed to me. He's contributed to Mr. Crisler. So you have to follow the money."

McGowan's influence in Jackson played out less successfully than in the Pearl primary. Johnson bested Crisler with more than 60 percent of the vote. He says he will hold no hard feelings against McGowan. "I'm for any plan that's going to allow the citizens of Jackson to communicate with the Pearl River, whether it's One Lake or Two Lake," Johnson said.

McGowan told the Jackson Free Press that he had made a mistake in donating money to a PAC committee that put out inaccuracies in the days leading up to the Democratic primary, but made no apologies about campaigning against Johnson's perceived indifference to the Two Lake Plan.

"I've come to the conclusion that I can't make a political action committee act honestly," McGowan said. "Next time I'll just donate directly to the candidate. That's the way I'll do it."

Previous Comments

ID
148217
Comment

Hi all, please read through Adam's new cover story above on Two Lakes and post additional questions under the story. He will be on the "Pearl River" beat for a while, and we are working out the individual stories to follow up on. Help us ensure that all your questions are answered! We'll also add some links, etc., to this story today -- AND we're setting up a special Pearl River archive page for all our related stories and columns to date, as well as all stories going forward related to the various plans for flood control, economic development and greening of the Pearl Water waterway. I'll link to the archive here when it's done. Thanks all. And pass the word on this special coverage -- the community needs to be heavily involved going forward. Clearly, too much has happened behind the scenes; it's time to counter all the politicking with real, true community involvement before anyone decides what is the "locally preferred" plan. That does not mean "locally preferred" by a handful of political appointees put there by the highest bidders. No matter who they are. Onward!

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2009-05-28T08:06:07-06:00
ID
148220
Comment

Nice article Adam. This should clear the air on a lot of concerns people are having. My only comment is that it doesn't compare the levels of flood control that each plan would provide.

Author
QB
Date
2009-05-28T08:40:38-06:00
ID
148227
Comment

Harry, we have a follow-up piece coming on the flood-control projections (which seem to change/vary as much as the pricetags). We're looking for unbiased experts to give us opinions on that components, which is not easy to find quickly. Adam did this piece around Memorial Day weekend, and that made it harder to get outside sources. We're on this beat for a while, though. One thing to note is that it might not ultimately matter how much "flood control" Mr. McGowan promises if this plan will be stuck in lawsuits for years, further delaying other options. If it becomes the "locally preferred" plan by political appointments, that is almost certain to happen. We really fear that Jackson is being held hostage to an overly ambitious project. sure to read Todd's publisher's note this week, too. He summarizes the bullet points in a very succinct way, and don't miss his final point at the end of the column. Some people complain that the JFP even dares to ask questions about a government project of this magnitude that keeps morphing, but Jackson *must* keep its feet planted on the ground as this decision process goes forward. And to do that, y'all need information. Keep the questions coming, all.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2009-05-28T09:35:50-06:00
ID
148231
Comment

"A more recent example of Pearl River shenanigans would be the 1979 Easter flood, when the river ignored partial levees and rose to inundate the Jackson fairgrounds and portions of Flowood and Pearl, causing a devastating $200 million worth of damage." I am replying neither for or against Two Lakes, Levees, or One Lake. The above "opinion" of the Jackson Free Press is highly offensive to those of us "in" Jackson who suffered grave flooding in '79. To have uninformed readers think that only a small portion of Jackson, the fairgrounds, flooded is horrible! Almost all of downtown flooded. I-55 was inundated with water. Many, many individual homes flooded in Jackson. Even in the areas that are now called Fondren (though they weren't called that back then) flooded with as much as 3 to 5 feet of water. Even now, in areas of NE Jackson there are homes that have to consider U-Hauls when it rains and the Pearl backs up. As recent as 2004 probably 500 to 1000 families had to rent trucks and begin moving their stuff as homes began to flood or were in danger of flooding. Your article also ignores the major flood of 1961 and that the damage estimate of $200 million dollar figure is closer to half a billion or more. Do not try to pass off the dangers of the Pearl as "shenanigans" when peoples lives and homes are at risk. There is nothing worse then the helpless feeling you get when you know your home is going to slowly flood in a few days and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Just some reminders in case you still want to believe that the flood was just some "shenanigans" that flooded the fairgrounds! http://travel.webshots.com/album/548079817LFUlWl If you want read a sobering account of the flood read this article from NOAA. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/jan/events/79flood/excerpts.htm "Flood stage at Jackson is 18 feet (Flood Stage in 2004 is 28 feet). The previous record had been 37.5 feet in 1902, and the modern day record was 37.2 feet in 1961, just after the completion of Ross Barnett Reservoir. There is little concern in Jackson until after the river reaches 30 feet. The water begins affecting some homes and businesses at about 34 feet.... Rumors of levee breaks and the dam breaking and of plans to dynamite the dam became rampant. Panic gripped some when helicopters flew over areas at 3am Sunday calling for people to evacuate... The river finally crested out at 43.25 feet (Revised upward by the United States Geological Survey to 43.28 feet) around 3pm Tuesday afternoon. The final toll showed 15,000 people evacuated and an estimated 500 million dollars damage. Many homes in the northeast section of the city, some valued at $120,000 and up, were under water for a week. Many businesses in the downtown area were flooded out when backwater flooding from a creek that runs through town got in them. Other businesses received water when the river flood waters came at them from around a levee built to protect them. Only one death occurred in the Jackson area, when a little girl fell off the porch of her home into the flood waters." http://www.clarionledger.com/apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Avis=D0&Dato=20090411&Kategori=NEWS&Lopenr=904110802&Ref=PH

Author
Birdseye
Date
2009-05-28T10:02:02-06:00
ID
148232
Comment

Birdseye, Adam and everyone else here knows that flooding dangers are real. That's a big part of the reason we are not quick to jump behind a "locally preferred" plan that will delay *any* kind of flood control for many years -- and possibly increase flooding around the project and downstream in Mississippi and Louisiana. We appreciate the links, though. One thing here that is important to note: You are welcome to disagree and discuss any issue, but do not make it personal. That's not going to help anything. Thanks much.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2009-05-28T10:07:14-06:00
ID
148233
Comment

Sorry, a person who reads this article with no prior knowledge of the past, will think that only the fairgrounds, pearl and flowood flooded based on your opening paragraph. The term "shenanigans" implies that the '79 flood was a minor event. I could care less about the JFP's concern about Two-lakes or the levees. Keep up the fight. The point is you should not minimize what the '79 flood did to the city, its residents and the economic fallout for years afterwards. You may call pointing out the fallacies of that "shenanigans" statement "personal" but I call it facts. You have trivialized the '79 flood. You ignored the '61 flood. You are ignoring the yearly game of "wait and see" everytime it rains in Jackson for many residents. Again (since you missed it), I am not here to defend Two Lakes, levees or one lake or any other method of flood control and economic development. I am here to defend the defenseless from being trivialized by the opinion of the author that the '79 flood only flooded the fairgrounds and that it was just some weather "shenanigans."

Author
Birdseye
Date
2009-05-28T10:23:53-06:00
ID
148235
Comment

I don't care if you question the word "shenanigans," Birdseye—it's an easy complaint to answer. It is not a downplay of flooding. Period. That's wasn't the part about getting personal—it's more about the sarcastic 'above "opinion"' in quotes and such that shows you might try to head down the same road as in previous posts. You've tried to make it personal for weeks here against us for disagreeing with some of your opinions about the mayor's race and Two Lakes, and it stops here. You are welcome to continue posting about substance, and disagreeing substantively, but my reporters work too hard, and around holidays, for trivial and anonymous personal attacks. Going forward, all substance, please.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2009-05-28T10:46:42-06:00
ID
148236
Comment

I'm pretty sure litigationi will ensue with whatever plan is chosen. No plan will please everyone.

Author
QB
Date
2009-05-28T10:47:45-06:00
ID
148237
Comment

Re substance: No one is ignoring the "wait and see" game. A very vital point here is that "waiting and seeing" if Two Lakes folks can finally get a levee board that will make it the "locally preferred" plan so that other options come off the table and then waiting and seeing how long it'll take to get through the lawsuit stage is not exactly the way to put Jacksonians' minds at ease about flooding. And then there's the waiting and seeing how many decades, as Mr. McGowan described, it would take to see any financial return on the development part. That's a whole lot of waiting and seeing.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2009-05-28T10:51:33-06:00
ID
148238
Comment

Harry, it would be irresponsible to write off the litigation issue that way. I don't know how many ways we can warn about the level of lawsuits that this particular plan, as it's currently formulated, is likely to bring. And I don't mean by someone local who just doesn't like it. I mean by some very powerful groups who aren't going to be pleased about all the environmental issues not dealt with. Oh, and the state of Louisiana. And the town of Monticello. Probably landowners who won't want the government to condemn their property, and then take it for private development. Etc. Etc. Even if the plan could deliver every bit of the flood control McGowan promises at the bargain cost he promises, there is nothing here that will actually *expedite* flood control, and a lot to slow it down. There really is nothing wrong, and everything right, about facing basic reality. If you are willing to wait another 20 years for the litigation to play out with the possibility of needing a new plan when it's done and risk not seeing any eco-devo benefits for decades after the government taking control of the entire floodplain, then maybe it's worth the risk to you. But at least be clear what the risks are.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2009-05-28T10:59:38-06:00
ID
148241
Comment

[Great job Adam! You really pulled together an enormous amount of information quicker than it would have taken me to even type it! (which might be seen as faint praise though that was not my intent)] The Federal permitting and review process is not just the law, it is actually a good idea. Before moving to Mississippi, where apparently I am an "environmentalist", most of my professional engineering experience was defending industrial clients against what I consider real "environmentalists" in California (though I use the word "against" loosely and don't think of "environmentalist" as a necessarily disparaging label). My approach there was to work with the client to understand the intent of regulations, and see them not as a burden, but as a framework for managing those aspects of their business. Once the client understood the intent of the law, it was less of a burden to comply with the letter of the law, and arguments with regulators/environmentalists became relatively straight forward. While I have little direct experience with the NEPA process, understanding the regulations' intent and following the process constructively offers an opportunity to provide a framework for arriving at a realistic flood control strategy that seems to be lacking. As Andrés Duany put it, "I like projects that can be completed in my lifetime". Of course you can't make everyone happy (there, I did use the word that time), and of course there will be lawsuits, but if you follow the intent AND letter of the law, you stand on much firmer ground. Is the firmer ground made up of dredged sand? To date there has been no adequate framework to judge the alternatives. As long as the process remains incomplete, flood control will continue to stall.

Author
pjiv
Date
2009-05-28T13:17:40-06:00
ID
148244
Comment

DL/Adam: In response to your quote ("One thing here that is important to note: You are welcome to disagree and discuss any issue, but do not make it personal. That's not going to help anything. Thanks much.") & framing the issue, (which I know is still incomplete at this time)what remains is that the '79 was and still is a very personal thing to many Jacksonians. I don't necessarily agree with Birdseye's tone of voice and few of his/her comments, but this issue is a bigger deal to some folks than those creating copy concerning a 30 year old flood-control debate. As a nine year old, my family lived outside the flood damage, and we were lucky, but I had many childhood friends with 9 feet of water in their homes. Ever tried dodging water moccasins to retrieve dry clothes? I would think that might create long-lasting bitterness and a very germaine sense of frustration with this process. Todd's synopsis was very well written and topical, whereas Adam's story seamed to gloss over very real memories, mostly painful ones. Keep up the expose, and help the remaining Jacksonians continue to vet out the real costs and ramifications of any plan. I applaud this "onward" route with great support.

Author
GradyGriffin
Date
2009-05-28T14:29:43-06:00
ID
148245
Comment

Of course it's a big deal, EatOut. The point is that no. one. is. denigrating. it. The need to respect people's difficult memories reminds me of when people discuss their horrible experiences of race hatred in the state, and others downplay them by saying "all that's in the past." Obviously, that is not a good thing to do on any topic. Obviously, flooding is not all in the past. A big part of the reason we're trying to force all the issues and details into the public view is precisely because people may have to wait many more years for any option is Two Lakes is seen as the only real option. And I would caution that you also need to watch our for people who might play off the fears of more flooding in order to get their own vision of development projects through. You can disagree all you want with Adam's choice of words, but it's all those years of lawsuits you should be focused on if you really want flood control in the near future. Finally, in case it wasn't clear, I was referring to Birdseye's tendency to come here and attack the messenger on topics he disagrees with—the piece above is not an "opinion" piece just because it reports some stuff in it that some people would rather not see reported. Otherwise, every good story is "personal." I'm all for that—but not having important dialogues derailed with personal attacks.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2009-05-28T14:43:50-06:00
ID
148246
Comment

I actually think about your last sentence every day, Donna. My offices will be one of the first structures to take on water during the next flood, and when that happens the next potential solution better not be mired in state, federal or environmental court, or this life-long Jacksonian will be looking for his forty acres and a mule somewhere else.

Author
GradyGriffin
Date
2009-05-28T14:58:36-06:00
ID
148248
Comment

Adam, Todd & Donna- A nice article and editorial there. I'm looking forward to the followup articles and more depth about this. EatOutOften_GGriffin, MHRA doesn't have a disaster recovery and mitigation plan for a reasonably likely occurrence? Or it does and its just too frustrating to deal with the aftermath for something so avoidable?

Author
Pilgrim
Date
2009-05-28T15:21:16-06:00
ID
148250
Comment

EatOut, I suspect you were referring to my following "last sentence," right? You can disagree all you want with Adam's choice of words, but it's all those years of lawsuits you should be focused on if you really want flood control in the near future. (I added the part about Birdseye after sending the first time. So wanted to help to clarify.)

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2009-05-28T15:47:18-06:00
ID
148251
Comment

Is it a fact that the development around the Pearl River is the main contributing factor to the bank erosion in Monticello? It could be, but the wider known fact is that rivers change paths constantly, albeit slowly. Look at the Mississippi River for example. It's banks have moved considerably over the years.

Author
chip
Date
2009-05-28T15:48:38-06:00
ID
148254
Comment

Chip, More like the Mississippi and the Army Corps of Engineers have wrestled for years over the course of the river and where it enters the Gulf, and where it moves. So far, the ACE has the Mississippi pinned, but that only lasts as long as we do (or New Madrid turns over the table).

Author
Pilgrim
Date
2009-05-28T15:54:58-06:00
ID
148260
Comment

It's a never ending battle for the Corp with the Mississippi river, they spend billions of dollars every year on projects on the Mississippi River. They have been trying for years to keep the main channel from changing cousre and leaving Baton Rouge and N.O. on oxbow lakes. National Geographics (IIRC) did article or tv program about it a few years ago and most of the Corp people they interviewed said they could prevent the River from changing course for a while but it was going to happen anyway and it was going to be just like it was always happens, wake up one morning and the river is gone.

Author
BubbaT
Date
2009-05-28T19:45:43-06:00
ID
148438
Comment

Excellent article. To those interested in water use issues, check out the book "When the Rivers Run Dry" by Fred Pearce and the documentary film "Blue Gold." Also, read MS Code Annotated section 51-3-1.

Author
anonymouse
Date
2009-06-03T14:55:59-06:00

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