To Levee or Not to Levee | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

To Levee or Not to Levee


Levee Board member Socrates Garrett said he approved a new conflict-of-interest policy to move flood control along the Pearl River forward.

Also see: Editorial: Stop the Lakes v. Levees Drama

Some members of the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District Levee Board may have been surprised to learn Wednesday that they voted earlier this year for the U.S. Corps of Engineers to study a flood-control plan "with or without levees."

Late last year, the Corps sought to end decades of wrangling over the viability of a Two Lakes plan and other flood-control options by opting to move ahead with a levee expansion to provide urgently needed flood protection along the Pearl River.

The Levee Board voted this summer to ask the U.S. Corps of Engineers to study a modest one-lake plan that would provide some economic-development while leaving wetland areas north of Lakeland Drive untouched, including the scenic Mayes Lake campgrounds. The board hopes this plan could skirt some environmental concerns about earlier, more ambitious plans rejected by the Corps due to cost, environmental and other roadblocks.

The Jackson Free Press reported Oct. 6 that there was confusion over whether or not the new plan might also include levees, with the Northside Sun reporting erroneously that levees were definitely off the table, and quoting Levee Board member Leland Speed's assurances that a second lake could be added above Lakeland later on, effectively creating a Two Lakes development anyway at some point.

Levee Board member Socrates Garrett, also a Two Lakes supporter, inquired at the last meeting whether the more recent lake plan endorsed by the Levee Board features an expanded levee system or requires no levee expansion at all. Two Lakes developer John McGowan demanded that the Levee Board investigate what it had actually voted for, even as other board members seemed clear that the Corps would likely study the plan with and without levees, no matter how they had asked the question.
In response to Garrett's request, board attorneys today brought minutes listing the board's May 20 resolution that requested the Corps work with the Levee Board to include in its flood control plan "economic and environmental considerations" for a potential lake, which the minutes plainly indicated could be either "with or without levees."

Garrett responded that it was important for the board to clarify the levee aspect of their resolution, however: "[M]y understanding was that we did not require levees at all," Garrett said. "That is a critical issue that this board must address at some point in time so we will know specifically what we are asking for in our lower lake plan." Garrett called the current lake plan "nebulous and confusing," and added that "the board should give some direction as to what it would like to see (from the Corps), so it can negotiate down" from the preferred non-levee alternative.

Advocates for a future expansion of the modest lake plan into a larger lake oppose extending levees, which they say will make a lake expansion above Lakeland impossible.

Board member Harvey Johnson Jr. asked if the Levee Board's decision was purposefully vague: "Isn't that what the feasibility study is for, to decide whether to allow levees?"

Joe Waggoner, whose company does engineering for the Levee Board, said he also preferred a levee-free lake—if the federal government determines that it is feasible. "… nder the single-lake concept we recommend we start with the lake only, without the levees, as the benchmark around which to evaluate the level of protection, and to only any additional purchase necessary if the single lake proves not to work," Waggoner said.

Jackson oilman John McGowan, who still advocates for his Two Lakes plan, said the difference between his plan and Waggoner's is that Waggoner made the mistake of trying to count on federal money to fund the lake. Instead, he suggested that the Levee Board walk away from the Corps' input and funding match. "We believe that we should develop this one lake plan as a standalone flood-control plan with our own resources here and finalize it in a form that is defensible," McGowan told the Levee Board. "What Joe wants to do is go into a continuation of this feasibility study and work with the Corps on developing a plan. But the Corps has already said they're not going to do it, that mandates won't let them do it." (The Corps agreed in September to study whether a one-lake impoundment could be included in the final flood-protection plan.)

McGowan instead suggested the Levee Board look for local funding or through U.S. legislators—presumably an earmark.

The Levee Board did not today mention a report issued Oct. 12, 2010, by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review that criticized Levee Board members for not doing more to get better flood protection in place in the years since the devastating flood of 1979. "Thirty-one years after the 1979 food," PEER wrote, "governmental entities have not yet implemented a comprehensive flood control plan for the Jackson metropolitan area."

The PEER report specifically calls out the Two Lakes plan for its extensive environmental impact, its potential for litigation, a lack of eminent domain authority to take the land required from landowners, being financially unfeasibility (with a likely pricetag of $1.2 billion) and for having "no apparent definable plan to finance the construction of the "Two Lakes Plan." In addition, PEER stated, "[c]onstruction of a flood control project to protect human life and property is a governmental function and not that of an undefined private entity."

PEER indicated that the Levee Board needed to move "expeditiously" toward a flood-control plan, warning that pushing for a lake may delay protection even longer. PEER told the report it expects a progress report by Dec. 31, 2010.

Read more of the JFP's award-winning Two Lakes-Pearl River coverage in our Pearl River archive.

Previous Comments


Why is John McGowan allowed to dictate to the Levee Board what he wants them to do. Who appointed him to the board? What government entity does he represent? As someone who suffered economic damage from the flood of 79, I am sick and tired of the Levee Board delaying a flood control plan. I am sick and tired of Socrates Garrett representing McGowan instead the of the people of Hinds County. The Hinds County board of Suppervisors needs to remove Garrett from the Levee board and put someone on there who will represent the best interests of the people of Hinds County, not be a bought and paid for lackey of McGowan and Speed. An economic development plan is fine but it should be secondary to creating a good flood control plan. Levees should NOT be removed from the planning!! The interests of the general public should come before the economic interests of a few greedy people.


Wellington, I do agree that is nonsensical to insist at this point either that the Corps should not be told to consider a lake plan only with levees. As if they are going to do that, anyway. All of this is wasting time. The first priority is, read my lips, flood control. At this point, because of all the dickering around over Mr. McGowan's shifting vision over the years (click the link to the PEER report), we are in an emergency place and a bit of a quandary. If a lake-only or combined lake-levees plan can be done with haste, fine, let's make it happen. But this ridiculous wasting of time over what was right in the minutes for months is absurd and embarrassing. I was blown away by the Levee Board meeting yesterday and them giving McGowan the floor to say at this point we should leave out the Corps and pay for it ourselves or get an earmark. (They do seem to think we can just convince politicians to do anything we want. Or donate enough to make them.) PEER says that the Two Lakes people didn't have a plan for paying for it, under-estimated how much it would cost, though they were going to use eminent domain powers they didn't have and so on. It is time for cold, hard reality to enter this conversation. I want to see Mr. Orr run those meetings stronger and not let them be derailed by side issues. It is too urgent to watch any more of this game-playing. Two Lakes is not going to happen, now or in the future. The Corps is going to approve whatever plan we end up using. We're all going to have to figure out how to fund it, together. Demonizing the Corps is tired and childless, especially considering the clear incompetency and chicanery we've seen on various sides of this issue over the years. (Remember the secret Better Jackson PAC?) Mayor Johnson had one of the few intelligent comments: “Isn’t that what the feasibility study is for, to decide whether to allow levees?” Duh. We may end up with expanded levees, and we may not. But all this whining about whether or not they should be studied is only delaying the inevitable. Mr. Garrett and Mr. Speed need to lead on this, not follow whatever Mr. McGowan seems concerned about. With due respect.



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