JACKSON One U.S. Senate bill currently waiting on President Donald Trump's signature could have major ramifications for the long-planned and controversial "One Lake" development and flood-control project along the Pearl River in Jackson.
Republicans from Louisiana have inserted language into the bill to require a full vetting of the "One Lake" proposal, which has raised many questions about environmental and safety impacts, effect on existing businesses, who would pay additional taxes and exactly what flooding would be helped should the project come to fruition. U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, laid out dozens of questions he and other critics say are not answered in the draft "One Lake" plan in a comprehensive memo and letters to the Corps, Congress and "One Lake" backers in early September.
Thompson included multiple questions about potential conflicts of interests of Lake backers and land owners, and about how financing of the study has worked to date. The Pearl River Vision Foundation, started by a backer of the project whose family owns land within and near the possible project footprint, is leading efforts to make One Lake happen.
Recently, the U.S. Senate nearly unanimously voted to pass the America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, which seeks to mediate a number of water-source clashes across the country. Also called the Water Resources Development Act, the legislation now has language that will block "One Lake"'s development until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can fully assess the environmental impact the project would have downstream on the Pearl River.
Since the draft plan went public with limited public-comment opportunities, concerns about impacts of the plan downstream as far as Louisiana have emerged. U.S. Congressman Steve Scalise, R-La., and Louisiana state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, both Republicans, are calling for a stronger vetting of "One Lake."
"Before this project is allowed to move forward, we need to know that it will not decrease the water flow downriver, impact our coastal restoration efforts, or result in additional flooding in areas downriver from the proposed project," Scalise said in a statement. "In Southeast Louisiana, our unique landscape, created in part by the Pearl River system, is essential to our way of life, culture and economy, and I'll continue fighting to ensure that this landscape and our coastal restoration efforts are not undermined."
Lake backers have long claimed that it will mitigate any environmental impacts to the extent the law requires, but others disagree, citing additional concerns as well.
Hundreds of businesses, environmental organizations, the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce and other entities oppose the "One Lake" project, promising years of lawsuits should it move forward as planned. Today, the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network and Audubon Mississippi released a statement applauding the new congressional language that Scalise added to the pending bill.
"One Lake involves damming and dredging the Pearl River near Jackson to promote real estate development under the guise of providing dubious flood protection for the metro area," the statement from the groups said.
"One Lake" is the latest proposal from oilman John McGowan and partners, who have long backed building at least one lake along the Pearl in Jackson to tie flood control and real estate development. Supporters of the project, which would involve damming and dredging the river, have stated that it will provide flood protection for the metro area, while some detractors believe it to be financially motivated. Backers often point to the 1979 Easter flood as a reason to back the project, but the draft study showed that it would not prevent that size flood, nor would it help stop creek flooding within Jackson.
Of Lakes and the Pearl River: A JFP Archive
More than a decade of JFP coverage of flooding and lake plans for the Pearl River
"One Lake is little more than a private real estate development scheme, financed at taxpayer's expense, masquerading as flood control," Mississippi Sierra Club Louie Miller said.
Section 1176 of the new legislation states that the project can only move forward once it has been deemed "technically feasible, economically justified and environmentally acceptable." By law, the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District—the Levee Board, which is the local sponsor of the project—will have to provide a detailed plan as to how it will mitigate any negative affects downstream.
"The project has been short on transparency, long on salesmanship and offers nothing positive to the Lower Pearl River in either Mississippi or Louisiana," Andrew Whitehurst, water program director for the Gulf Restoration Network, said in a statement. "Dredging and damming to give Jackson a 1,900-acre lake is an experiment that can't be undone if it results in reduced flows and worse water quality downstream."
"This mounting opposition against "One Lake" across political, economic, and geographic spectrums speaks volumes," Audubon Mississippi Policy Director Jill Mastrototaro said in the statement.
Read the Jackson Free Press' award-winning coverage of current past lake plans at jacksonfreepress.com/pearlriver.