Read Billy Orr's letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (PDF, 256 KB)
The Rankin-Hinds Levee Board is turning to Mississippi's congressional representatives to press the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to include a lake in its flood control plan after Corps officials rejected the levee board's latest lake plan June 8.
Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District Levee Board Chairman Billy Orr told the Jackson Free Press that he was dismayed by the Corps' rejection of the levee board's most recent lake plan.
"I was hoping the Corps would have liked the new lake plan," Orr said. "We tried to make it as environmentally friendly as possible, but they're still not OK with it. They sent us a letter saying they wanted levees only with no lake. That was pretty clear in the letter. Our next step is to go to our congressmen."
The Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District Levee Board has considered several plans to reduce flooding similar to the 1979 devastation of the historic Easter Flood, which brought more than $200 million in damage to Hinds County. The board had considered a massive lake plan impacting more than 7,000 acres of wetland and woodland area, as well as a recent lake plan that only floods the channelized portion of the Pearl River, south of Lakeland Drive. The more modest lake plan leaves wetland areas north of Lakeland untouched, including the scenic Mayes Lake campgrounds.
"Environmentally, that area had already been impacted. And there are levees all along it, so hydraulically you've already modified the area for drainage," Waggoner Engineering Inc. project engineer Barry Royals told the board in April, when describing the area targeted for permanent inundation.
Royals produced the smaller, shallower Lake 255 (named for being 255 feet above sea level) in direct response to the Corps' 2009 refusal to approve any flood control plan that affected more wetland areas than the Corps-preferred levees-only plan. A majority of the board wants to tie flood control to the creation of new scenic lakefront property to promote new construction in Jackson's urbanized downtown area.
Jackson oilman John McGowan, who has long pushed for his more ambitious Two Lake plan—which the Corps soundly rejected due to its harsh environmental impact—accepted the viability of the Lake 255 plan at the time of the Levee Board's March vote. Board member Leland Speed, another advocate of the Two Lakes plan, made it clear that he has not given up on the idea of Two Lakes, saying the smaller lake could expand over the next few decades to encompass the northern sections above Lakeland Drive, provided environmental litigation permits the expansion.
"This thing could be more easily done in increments," Speed said. "This is a start."
Despite Levee Board's agreement, Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District Commander Jeffrey Eckstein refused to include the Lake 255 plan in any flood control study endorsed by the Corps, according to a June 8 letter he sent to Levee Board Chairman Billy Orr.
"The … comprehensive levee plan is a less damaging practicable alternative when compared to … any of the impoundment alternatives sought to be studied by the Drainage District," Eckstein wrote, referring to a Nov. 23 letter the Corps submitted to the levee board. Eckstein added, however, that no impoundment meets the criteria of federal law as an "environmentally acceptable locally preferred plan."
"It is therefore not in the federal interest to expend more time and resources to continue studying the report, especially when there is no realistic expectation that … any of the impoundment alternatives will ever qualify as the less damaging practicable alternative," Eckstein wrote, adding that Corps "cannot resume the study for the purposes of considering any impoundment alternatives or private development features."
In reaction to the Corps' June letter, the Levee Board unanimously approved a resolution this week to approach the Mississippi congressional delegation "to ask for assistance in requiring the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to reengage in evaluating a locally preferred plan to include a lake as a flood control element."
Members of the Levee Board claim the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 legally permits an impoundment, despite Section 3104 of federal law, referenced by Eckstein as the reason the Corps can't consider a lake as part of the plan.
Board attorney Trudy Allen argued before the Corps last year that WRDA exempted a local lake plan from some environmental regulations: "(WRDA) 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). ... We're missing an important element in this calculus if you don't go forward and consider the environmental acceptability of each of these plans the board is asking you to take," Allen told the Corps.
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, long an advocate of McGowan's lake plan, and now perhaps the Lake 255 Plan, did not immediately return calls for comment.