JACKSON, Miss.—It wasn’t the first rodeo for many who back or oppose the dominant flood-mitigation proposal for Mississippi’s capital-city area when they gathered, again, in the cavernous Sparkman Auditorium at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum on May 24. They were there to speak their piece about how the area needs to deal with a perpetual Pearl River flooding threat while protecting the environment and livelihoods in Mississippi and Louisiana.

But this time people on various sides actually got their turn at the microphone, with many of the speakers strongly supporting or opposing the “One Lake” development plan whose backers have long promised flood relief alongside many new miles of lucrative waterfront property.

Thanks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, both supporters and opponents of a continually morphing decades-old lake strategy along the Pearl River were finally able to step up to a microphone in front of cameras and audiences during two sessions. One was over lunch and one after work to accommodate the most members of the public possible, along with a way to call in for those who couldn’t attend.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is seeking feedback on several flooding strategies for the Jackson, Miss., metropolitan area—or it may choose a combination. Its decision could come in January 2024. The One Lake plan would fall under Alternative C. Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In recent years, organizers of One Lake public meetings at the “Ag Museum,” less than a mile from the Pearl River as the crow flies, only allowed attendees to speak one-on-one to the plan’s spokesmen. Citizenry dictated comments to court reporters or submitted written thoughts with the goal of reaching consensus over damming the Pearl River in a stretch between Hinds and Rankin counties as the locally preferred flood-mitigation option.

This time, voices on both sides of the issue were loud and passionate—and did not break down into predictable boxes of who is for and against today’s versions of the lake strategy, certainly not by stereotypical political leanings.

In Jackson that day, those who spoke in favor of One Lake (“Alternative C”) broke into two categories: fans heralding the economic-development of the One Lake plan and those who live in flood-prone Jackson areas who are ready for some kind of flood-mitigation strategy to move forward, whether it’s One Lake or something else.

The public forums followed a Corps announcement on May 18 that it is developing a new draft environmental impact statement, or “DEIS,” on flood risk-management options that it would allow under Section 3104 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 for the Pearl River watershed through Hinds and Rankin counties. The new DEIS will update the goals of the original 2013 notice of intent, potentially leading to a final anti-flooding plan by January 2024.

Impacts Beyond ‘Jackson, Jackson, Jackson’

Of those whom Monticello, Miss., Mayor Martha Watts heard from favoring only the One Lake plan that day, all of them named economic development as a high priority, she said in an interview this week. Residents of flood-prone areas like Town Creek and along Eubanks Creek in Jackson understandably want the flooding to stop, she said.

“What I saw and I heard, they’ll take any plan. They just want their problem solved. I don’t blame them.” But Watts was there to speak out against the lake strategy due to potentially devastating economic impacts downstream.

Two similar gatherings, both allowing call-ins for those who couldn’t attend, also occurred the day before in Slidell, La., on the eastern side of Lake Pontchartrain near where the southern tail of the Pearl River snakes to its mouth into Lake Borgne and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. Once the Pearl becomes the shared border of the Magnolia and Pelican states about 100 miles south of Jackson for its remaining journey south from its Neshoba County origin, it’s impossible to argue that Louisiana has no stake in the proposed lake project.

Communities downstream from the Pearl River though the Jackson, Miss., area are concerned by myriad possible impacts, including in Monticello and Columbia in Mississippi, and Bogalusa and the Slidell region in Louisiana.

Opposition has long been strong in Slidell country for myriad, mostly food-on-the-table reasons.

Still, as Mayor Watts said this week, the most attention has long centered on “Jackson, Jackson, Jackson”—and especially for economic-development aspirations on both the Hinds and Rankin county sides of the river running through the capital-city region.

The Corps is now seeking comment not only about the current iteration of the lake strategy, but on a menu of potential flood-mitigation options that have enjoyed far less oxygen over the years and that lake supporters routinely reject as inferior. The agency is considering multiple options including One Lake, floodproofing methods, voluntary buyouts of high-flooding areas or an idea not in the forefront yet. Corps officials, as well as Mayor Watts, mentioned a University of California at Berkeley proposal that might involve less dredging, less environmental disruption and more public access.

The channel improvements option—One Lake is one possibility, but subject to federal alterations—could involve excavating and widening the river near Jackson as well as enhancing levees, relocation of habitat islands and moving a weir (dam) further downstream to try to mitigate negative downstream effects of the lake. Approval, rejection or a combination of those options is possible, as the Corps makes clear in its slide deck for the May 23 and 24 public meetings.

Residents fill a room to listen to proposals about flood control plans
Residents, lawmakers, business owners and public officials attend the first of two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sponsored public meetings in Jackson, Miss., on Wednesday, May 24, 2023, to present details on proposed Pearl River Flood Control plans and listen to residents’ thoughts, concerns and opinions on the plans. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

The federal agency is using the public comments and feedback, which can also be submitted in writing by June 20, 2023, from Jackson and further downstream in Mississippi and Louisiana, where the lake plan has been more publicly controversial, to develop a report that will go to Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Michael Connor this fall. Connor will then recommend whether a plan like “One Lake,” or another alternative, should move forward, possibly announcing his decision by early 2024.

Two momentous questions hang in the balance of the wait-for-decades-then-hurry process. First, what flooding-mitigation strategy will the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allow to move forward after decades of delays? Second, will the lake-development dream of a former oilman, now anticipated as the center of a “great city” overhaul of select parts of Jackson, become reality or sink?

‘Invitation-Only Movers and Shakers’

The lake concept is the long-coveted vision of former oilman and “wildcatter” John McGowan of Jackson whose own home and offices would be very close to the new waterfront property that could result. McGowan first suggested the dredging and lake-creation concept nearly 30 years ago in 1996 in what was first known as the LeFleur Lakes Flood Control Plan, and then called the Two Lakes plan and now since the failures of those concepts, the scaled-back but still ambitious One Lake plan.

John McGowan looking to the left inside a room
Former oil “wildcatter” John McGowan first came up with the idea for, first, two lakes in the Pearl River through Jackson, Miss., near his home and business. He has remained staunch in his desire for what is now called One Lake and helped start what is now called the Pearl River Vision Foundation, which partners with the local Levee Board. Photo by Trip Burns, Jackson Free Press file photo

A Jackson Free Press investigation in 2010 found that Levee Board members as well as McGowan family members and business partners owned multiple parcels of land that would become valuable waterfront property under the then-Two Lakes plan, but without publicly disclosing those potential conflicts.

The lake venture is also now referred to simply as the Pearl River Project and is the centerpiece of a “Great City” redevelopment strategem for mostly east, downtown and north Jackson that was recently marketed to what long-time lake backer Wyatt Emmerich called “100 ‘invitation only’ movers and shakers.”

Former U.S. Congressman-turned-lobbyist Chip Pickering and the nonprofit Great City MS Foundation presented the plans in an exclusive downtown Jackson gathering on April 17, reported by the conservative Magnolia Tribune, as well as Emmerich’s newspapers including the long-pro-lake Northside Sun in Jackson. The Crirec was not invited to cover the event.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba confirmed this week that he also was not invited to the Great City promotional event.

An exclusive gathering of “100 movers and shakers” were invited to a “summit” to promote a “Great City” plan for Jackson, Miss., which revealed this video. The “Pearl River Project,” which is also the One Lake Plan, appears in the video as a centerpiece development for the ambitious project. Courtesy City Foundation

Lake backers’ plan for dredging and damming the Pearl River would, originally, have created two lakes (and a couple of islands), but has shrunk now to one 1,400-acre lake, but still hundreds of acres of waterfront property, much of it privately owned, for development and recreational use.

Since 1996, the various failed and current lake strategies have always presented and triggered a laundry list of challenges, and not just environmental and endangered-wildlife concerns. The effort has endured decades of pushback about the use of eminent domain to take private property to, more recently, public-health risks and a possible “catastrophic failure of state-owned bridges” predicted of the Jackson metro’s highly coveted water feature.

In 2018, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson released a list of 54 questions and concerns about the by-then-scaled-down One Lake project, making his opposition clear and saying the One Lake plan was “not fully complying with federal law.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson close up, looking straight forward while adjusting his glasses with his thumb and index finger
In 2018, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson challenged the One Lake proposal, submitting dozens of questions and concerns to the U.S. Corps of Engineers and publicly. Photo by Nick Judin

More recently, the staff of the Democrat from Bolton, Miss., in Hinds County were among the movers and shakers invited to the “Great City” confab in downtown Jackson. Wyatt Emmerich wrote that Pickering told him that the congressman has changed his mind about the One Lake proposal. “Pickering said Congressman Bennie Thompson is now on board with One Lake which will help assuage environmental groups,” Emmerich wrote in an April 27 column. The Crirec reached out to Thompson’s office late last week to confirm his current position on One Lake, but received no response to Emmerich’s second-hand statement by press time.

Emmerich also wrote, prematurely due to the federal timeline released since April, that “Pickering tells me the stage is finally set for (One Lake) construction. The federal money has been allocated and a final go-ahead should be completed this summer.” Pickering, the son of Judge Charles Pickering, is Republican Mississippi royalty, serving in Congress from 1997 to 2009.

History of Transparency Complaints

In 2018, the lack of full One Lake transparency was included in a 38-page group letter (and attachments) with myriad signers that Rep. Thompson sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The letter cited several “failures” including “crucial” missing information from all public-facing information portals and “poorly noticed and organized public meetings” with messaging controlled by the local Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District, known locally as the “Levee Board,” as well as its partner Pearl River Vision Foundation.

The Levee Board, Thompson observed then, forced people to dictate questions or concerns individually to a court reporter at its supposedly public forums or by emailing them to a Gmail account instead of through an official government address.

The letter pointed out that the lake backers were only allowing a short 45-day public comment period after many years of internal, less-than-transparent planning.

McGowan and colleagues originally formed that nonprofit organization in 2000 as The Two Lakes for Mississippi Foundation, and its registered address is the McGowan Working Partners office near the One Lake footprint.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, speaking to the press in his office
Now-Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann was the attorney who incorporated the original Two Lakes for Mississippi Foundation to support oilman John McGowan’s dream of creating two lakes and islands in the Pearl River running through the capital-city region. Photo by Nick Judin

Now-Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann incorporated the foundation in 2000, and when its name changed to its current one in 2011, the Northside Sun reported that McGowan said he had selected board members himself “on the basis of who has respect in the community.” The eight men on the foundation board (two of them Black) were “doers” who could “exercise judgment in dealing with something of this size and nature,” McGowan told the Sun. Two of them were McGowan Working Partners colleagues, including President David Russell.

Members of the McGowan organization and the foundation also actively donated to Jackson mayoral candidates who supported the lake vision. Those donors included five of the firm’s partners through the initially unreported Better Jackson PAC in 2009 backing failed hopeful Marshand Crisler who said publicly then that no further study was needed and that he was ready to “pull the trigger.” Crisler is now under federal indictment for allegedly taking bribes, and he is running for Hinds County sheriff, a position he previously held on an interim basis.

The Better Jackson PAC initially attracted the attention of the Jackson Free Press when it was listed as the funder on glossy political mailers using crime rhetoric—with nothing about lakes or flooding mentioned—mailed to homes throughout north Jackson. The PAC did not submit required campaign-finance filings until the newspaper and local journalist Othor Cain together demanded public transparency past the filing deadlines.

‘This Elite Group Certainly Doesn’t Care’

John McGowan’s original Two Lakes development would have started just below the Ross Barnett reservoir and provided miles of waterfront property and increased property values to north Jackson landowners, especially in the posh Eastover neighborhood bordering the Pearl River. Today’s scaled-back proposal still tops out above Lakeland Drive with the proposed lake lapping the shores of Eastover to the west and near large homes such as the McGowan estate.

“Everybody in the whole state will benefit from this big project,” Perry Richards of Jackson said at the Ag Museum forum on May 24. “As people say, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something, and we need to do something that matters.”

Monticello Mayor Martha Watts demands to differ, pointing out the dangers of having a second dam on the Pearl River through Jackson, with the new one about eight miles below the Ross Barnett dam. “Who does that? Dams in two places with 200 miles (of the river) below where this dam is going to go?” she asked in an interview this week.

The Republican mayor of a small river town 79 miles southeast of Jackson said none of the high-profile politicians backing One Lake has once reached out to ask her opinion.

“This elite group certainly doesn’t care,” Watts said this week. “None of those politicians ever called me: not Delbert (Hosemann), not Tate (Reeves), not Roger Wicker has called me and asked, ‘Martha, how is this going to affect you down there?’ No politician has bothered to look below Jackson; yet they want our votes.”

Headshot of Rep. Zakiya Summers
Rep. Zayika Summers, a Jackson Democrat, spoke in favor of One Lake at a May 24, 2023, U.S. Corps of Engineers forum near the Pearl River. She believes the project would provide both flooding protection and benefits to low-income Jacksonians. Photo courtesy Zakiya Summers

Numerous Democratic public officials from the Jackson area agreed with long-time lake backers, many of them Republican officials and donors, at the Corps forum last week. “We believe that the proposed project provides protection, opportunity, and extends benefits to minority and low-income households in Jackson,” Rep. Zakiya Summers said at the Ag Museum gathering.

But this time, with the microphones turned on and not controlled by Lake backers and the Levee Board, dissident voices sounded off in the Sparkman Auditorium with those opposing the project due to potentially devastating downstream, economic and environmental effects among the most adamant.

Mississippi Rep. Becky Currie, a Brookhaven Republican who introduced a failed bill last session to prohibit “One Lake” from moving forward, brought to Jackson her opposition to the project and using tax money to pay for waterfront development.

“We the people don’t want it,” she said at the microphone.

A Complicated Calculus

The lake anti-flooding promise may have lingered for decades, but flooding in recent years in Jackson and a certain water infrastructure crisis long kicked down the road by federal, state and local officials have together ignited the need to stop waiting for another water disaster to occur in Mississippi’s capital city. It’s go-time, finally.

In October 2022, big news came for Jackson residents more than a quarter-century after McGowan unveiled his LeFleur Lakes dream in 1996, which was later scrapped due to high costs and immense environmental impacts. That has meant no new flooding mitigation enacted since then even as lake backers pushed one and then another scaled-back version and lobbied to overcome objections and push visions of a lake transforming Jackson.

Then last fall, in the wake of immense attention to the Jackson water crisis and perpetual flooding in the capital city, federal infrastructure legislation included $221 million for construction funding for “a comprehensive flood damage reduction plan for the Pearl River,” as the Daily Leader in Brookhaven reported.

State and City officials walk past sedimentation basins at the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility
Mississippi State Department of Health Senior Deputy Jim Craig, left, tours Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, right, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, center, and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, rear, through the City of Jackson’s O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility in Ridgeland, Miss., Friday, Sept. 2, 2022. Jackson’s water system partially failed following flooding and heavy rainfall. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool

The newly promised federal funds are more than half the full amount the lake proponents now promise the One Lake project will cost: $360 million. It was news all segments of the venn diagram of dredge-the-Pearl backers and please-fix-flooding-somehow residents needed to hear. But the federal funds are contingent on the process that is unfolding right now, which includes options other than the lake project or perhaps a combined or scaled-back dredging solution less focused on “Great City”-type development and more focused on public access to the river.

Once this latest stage is complete, Secretary Connor must sign off on the ultimate plan that will get those federal funds, perhaps as soon as January 2024.

Mayor Lumumba of Jackson, who sits on the Levee Board, said Thursday that he is “uncommitted” about the One Lake project and is waiting to hear from the Corps as the current public process moves forward. Plus, he needs confirmation of just who will benefit and how from the ultimate flooding/development decision. “I need to know that they approve the plan, and then I need to know the equitable economic impact,” Lumumba told the Crirec.

Last fall after news of the federal anti-flooding support came, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Tupelo, Miss., who is a passionate lake proponent, announced that the Biden administration had approved an additional $700,000 to help complete the DEIS process. Wicker’s comments hinted at the blame-detractors spin that some lake advocates have used for years as one after another lake plan failed to draw federal approval, due to myriad actual problems they have been forced to address in later scaled-down versions.

That is, a catastrophic flood would be the fault of lake critics for not crawling into the boat, that argument goes.

“As I have emphasized repeatedly to the (Biden) administration, each year that the Jackson metro area lacks adequate flood control is another year when we risk repeating the disaster of the Easter Flood of 1979,” Wicker told WLBT last fall. “This is the exact kind of hard infrastructure that our state needs.”

A screenshot of a tweet by user MayoFlynt that says Appreciate PhilBryantMS coming to Pearl Rier today to see how the One Lake project will protect against flooding and enhance central Mississippi
Like his father-in-law, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, Jackson-based lobbyist Manning McPhillips often tweets or retweets about flooding and One Lake like this one including former Gov. Phil Bryant to the right. He has represented the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District, which is pushing for One Lake in the Jackson metro, as a lobbyist.

Mayor Watts of Monticello pointed out this week that Wicker’s son-in-law, Manning McPhillips Jr., is a lobbyist for the One Lake project. McPhillips’ LinkedIn page shows him employed as a lobbyist at Watkins & Eager PLLC until May 2023 and that, within the last month, he became a principal at Cornerstone, also a government-affairs firm.

At Cornerstone, McPhillips is based in Jackson and “supports clients at the state and federal level, specifically with infrastructure, community development, public safety, workforce development, Corps of Engineers and other issues areas.” Before Watkins & Eager, McPhillips worked for seven-and-a-half years at the Mississippi Development Authority.

Still, many more people, businesses and families than those working and living in metropolitan Jackson have a stake in the decision—and many of them take issue with any suggestion that the majority of Mississippi residents are pleading the case for One Lake. The stakes are higher than economic development for the capital city, they say repeatedly downstream from the Jackson metropolitan area.

‘A Blessing for the Citizens of Jackson’

Socrates Garrett is a long-time businessman and contractor in Jackson, Miss., with his hand in a lot of projects. He passionately spoke in favor of One Lake at the Corps listening session in Jackson on May 24, pleading for John McGowan’s dream to move ahead and bring economic growth to a struggling capital city.

“The only opportunity that we have now is to make this river that God blessed us with be a blessing for the citizens of Jackson, and provide the economic opportunity that makes this place become a tourist attraction (and) makes us have a river beachfront that we can walk on, that we have hotels in the middle of the river, that we have all these businesses…,” he said at the microphone. “It’s the only chance Jackson has to grow and attract a new tax base.”

But critics like Mayor Watts of Monticello point out that Jackson businesspeople can’t own a river and use it however they want with little regard for what happens in communities 200 miles downstream. Her entire town—including mills, loggers, construction companies, paper mills, fisherman and seafood sales, river tourism, a water park, camping park and more—relies on the Pearl to sustain life and livelihoods, she said. Plus, she pointed out, Garrett’s emphasis was on only one of the Corps’ listed priorities.

“He said the only potential for growth is in that footprint of the river. The only chance for Jackson to grow and get a new tax base is to develop this river, that it’s under-utilized,” Watts told the Crirec. But, she repeats, two southern states have a stake in One Lake outcomes, not just one capital city and its suburbs.

Mayor Martha Watts of Monticello
Mayor Martha Watts of Monticello, Miss., is fighting to stop the One Lake project in the Jackson, Miss., metropolitan area because she believes it will devastate her town’s economy and more rural areas and towns all the way down to the Gulf Coast. Photo courtesy Martha Watts

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Pearl River Flood Risk Management explainer lists 11 priorities for whatever the ultimate Jackson-area Pearl River solution turns out to be. It includes water supply, water and wastewater treatment, environmental impacts, cultural resources, transportation, downstream impacts, and recreation access and opportunities.

The last item on the list is “economic opportunities”—a goal that draws inordinate attention from lake backers and at least as much lobbying as the first item on the list: flood risk reduction.

But the calculus for Mississippi and Louisiana, put simply, is complicated dramatically due to the “downstream impacts” bullet point. The Corps’ problem to solve—without creating new ones for other areas south of Jackson—is that the capital city region’s Pearl River Watershed is a disaster waiting for decades for a solution before another devastating flood strikes.

At the Jackson Corps forums last week, impatience and frustration over waiting for flooding help were palpable. Pastor Betty J. Johnson of the Planting Seeds Church of Deliverance on Executive Place in Jackson took the microphone to call on the Corps to move forward with efforts to alleviate seasonal flooding in parts of the capital city.

Betty J. Johnson
Pastor Betty J. Johnson of the Planting Seeds Church of Deliverance calls on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representatives to ensure efforts will be made to alleviate seasonal flooding in parts of the city, during the first of the Corps’ sponsored public meetings in Jackson, Miss., on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

It’s far from a new problem, but it’s a devastating one for Jackson residents. Headwater flooding of the Pearl River has destroyed homes and disrupted lives, businesses and industry throughout the Jackson area for a century. The Corps explains that more than 500,000 people and 5,000 residential and commercial structures are at risk of the river’s flooding, as previously seen in the devastating Easter Flood of 1979 and the May Flood of 1983. Then on Feb. 17, 2020, the Pearl crested at its third highest ever measured—36.67 feet—resulting in more devastating flooding in parts of Jackson.

Watts says she understands Jackson residents’ frustration, especially living in a city with heavy flooding threats. “I feel the misery of the ones that just want a solution; they’ll take anything thrown out to them. I don’t blame them. They’re tired of flooding,” she said this week.

She posits that private investors seeking profit want to use the need for flood help to “turn One Lake into a federal project so that eminent domain can enter the picture. So they don’t have to dip into their pockets.”

Jackson flooding
Flooding devastating parts of Jackson, Miss., in 2020, leaving residents impatient for a flooding-mitigation solution that has been kicked down the road for decades. File Photo by Nick Judin

The Corps says the overriding goal is to reduce the risk of flooding, including of critical infrastructure like the Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Facility, “and to improve access to transportation routes, evacuation routes, and critical care facilities during flood events.”

The question is how best to do that effectively and equitably while doing minimal harm locally and downstream in places from Monticello and Columbia in Mississippi, to Bogalusa and Slidell next door.

Lake Fear All the Way Down to Slidell

Louisiana’s Times-Picayune is known to derisively call the vaunted One Lake project a “pond.” The newspaper reported on a 2018 anti-lake meeting in Slidell, saying that “most in attendance found little satisfaction in the presentation.” State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, and one of the most vocal One Lake critics in that state, hosted that meeting, so microphones were fully open to criticism of the Jackson, Miss.-born concept.

“Hewitt and others in southwest Mississippi and southeast Louisiana have shown adamant opposition to the project,” the Louisiana newspaper reported then. “They say they fear it will choke water flow to areas like the Honey Island Swamp, disrupt critical habitat and animal species, and exacerbate erosion in the lower Pearl River basin, among other things.”

What happens to the Pearl itself—the third most endangered river in the nation as of April 2023—as well as its habitat and critters within, aren’t only woo-woo “green” concerns, as they’ve often been dismissed by a lake lobby not exactly enamored with environmentalists from the outset. The primary worries are about what changes in river flow, salinity and a host of other possibilities will do to livelihoods in areas with too few ways to make a living.

“The One Lake project is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. No matter how promoters dress it up, this project would damage river health and worsen Jackson’s flooding and drinking water crisis,” Olivia Dorothy with American Rivers said when announcing that extinction may prove imminent for the Pearl River. “Instead of lining the pockets of private real estate developers, our leaders must deliver real drinking water and flood protection solutions for the people of Jackson.”

State Sen. Sharon Hewitt of Slidell
Louisiana State Sen. Sharon Hewitt is one of the loudest opponents of the One Lake strategy because of what she and others believe it will do to livelihoods in and around Slidell, La. Photo courtesy State of Louisiana

The vibe from lake opponents is that the business suits in the metropolises of Jackson and Washington, D.C., just don’t get, or care, what is at stake for their communities. A new common ground has drawn true-green environmental groups together with shrimpers, swamp-tour operators and more conservative politicians like U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, both Republicans.

“I’m not a liberal environmentalist,” Mayor Martha Watts said this week. But she sure is working with them to save her town, she admits, often mentioning lake opponent Andrew Whitehurst of Healthy Gulf, for instance. They don’t agree on everything, she said, but avoiding what they all believe to be devastating impacts of dredging and damming the Pearl River is common ground.

Downstream communities are terrified of the change in water flow that damming the Pearl (again) upstream in Jackson can cause. The plan might result in economic benefits in central Mississippi, they say, but it can mean economic devastation down their way, affecting seafood industries, jobs, tourism and much more.

“It will change the whole ecology (if there’s less water running through the river to its mouth,)” veteran Swamp Tour operator Barry Bagert said at the 2018 Slidell meeting, reported by the Times-Picayune. “Saltwater intrusion—the whole estuary will suffer. The number-one tourist industry in St. Tammany (Parish) is swamp tours. It could ruin that. … I spent over 300 days a year for 15 years on the river doing swamp tours. I know all about that river.”

‘Masquerading As a Flood Control Project’

In May, the Louisiana Wildlife Federation announced the Corps’ Slidell meetings, while making it clear how strong opposition to One Lake is in Louisiana: “Over a dozen downstream stakeholders have passed unanimous resolutions opposing One Lake, including both houses of the Louisiana Legislature; St. Tammany and Washington Parishes, La.; Town of Pearl River, La.; and the cities of Bogalusa and Slidell, La.”

The federation called One Lake a “devastating private real estate development scheme masquerading as a flood control project.” Its explanation of why the lake project could be debilitating showed precisely why a coalition of forces who aren’t typically bedfellows have lined up against the project.

“Dredging and damming the Pearl could destroy vital fish and wildlife habitat, worsen Jackson’s flooding and drinking water crisis, increase toxic contamination, and reduce freshwater flows critical to the region’s important seafood and tourism economies,” the federation continued.

“… The project will dredge 10 miles of the Pearl River, destroying 2,500 acres of wetland habitat and disturbing eight highly toxic sites with no plan to protect public health. The low-head dam will reduce and alter the delivery of freshwater flows and nutrients vital to a healthy river-Gulf ecosystem and the communities and industries that rely on those flows.”

senator roger wicker
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Tupelo in northeast Mississippi is a staunch advocate of the One Lake project. Monticello Mayor Martha Watts says she hopes Louisiana members of the U.S. Senate and House will “overpower” his support of One Lake. Photo courtesy Sen. Roger Wicker’s office

This coalition of the concerned adds up to the will to beat back One Lake and force a different solution, Mayor Watts told the Crirec. “We’re all in this to win it. We have to win down here. There’s no other option,” she said. “Our saving grace probably will be Scalise and Kennedy out of Louisiana. They are unified. Hopefully, they can overpower Roger Wicker.”

On May 23, at one of the Corps public meetings in Slidell, local residents and business people sounded the alarm loudly, as Fox8 reported. “The captains around here, yeah we talk about it a good bit,” Capt. Gary Gilmore of Cajun Encounters in Slidell said. “(We’re) just not sure what impacts it will have this far down.”

Gilmore said at the public hearing that the dredging project could devastate business and industry along the lower Pearl River. His comments transcended tropes about liberals and environmentalism that some lake backers have waved around, showing the intertwined connection between “green” concerns and local families being able to pay the mortgage.

“It’s going to slow the water rates down,” Gilmore said. “It’s going to bring more salinity into the area, so most of the trees—if that happens—the salt water is going to come in here, and it’s going to kill a lot of the trees, a lot of the vegetation. You’ve got all your merchant fishermen that go out and catfish and catch crawfish and oysters, all that stuff, you’re making money.”

The U.S. Corps of Engineers is taking a list of 11 factors into consideration for a Jackson, Miss., flooding plan. The first on the list is flood risk reduction; the last is economic opportunities. Courtesy U.S. Corps of Engineers

Put simply, “wrecking the ecology of the Pearl River Basin,” as Nola.com characterized One Lake potential, would come at a high cost. “Other concerns raised by audience members included the impact on wetlands, further disruption to ecosystems and the shrimp, crab, and oyster industry, risk of storm surge, and a history of abandoned infrastructure projects—dams and lock systems that have sat in disarray for years,” Nola.com continued.

The Slidell criticism of the lake project, after so many years of bell-sounding, came packed with distrust of assurances One Lake architects are making about strategies to ameliorate or prevent downstream damages. And they think the Corps should get their backs and take care of what exists now.

“I just think instead of building more things, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers should take care of what they’ve already built in the Pearl River Basin instead of constructing more problems,” Janice O’Berry of Pearl River, La., said at a May 23 Corps forum in Slidell, as reported by Nola.com.

Like worried Mississippi counterparts downstream from Jackson, Louisianans are seething that lucrative real-estate development could be behind the drive to choose One Lake as the only way to mitigate flooding upstream. “They’re already advertising lots in the Jackson area,” said John Gattenberg of New Orleans, perhaps sarcastically, then asking how increased property values would help people displaced due to One Lake.

Nola.com reported that Robin Colosimo of the Corps responded that the agency does not plan to invest in a strategy that drives people from their homes.

‘It’s Not Their River’

A visit south from Jackson to Monticello in Lawrence County, Miss., quickly reveals why residents of the town named for Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home are terrified about what happens to the Pearl River further north. Incorporated in 1818, the town literally sits along a bend in the river with the Lawrence County justice court and tax assessor, Farm Bureau Insurance and the River Bend House of Brews backing up to it; the courthouse sits across a small street.

Perhaps more importantly, the town of 1,369 (60% white, 36% Black) depends on an industry that, in turn, relies on the river. Like most towns across Mississippi, its businesses struggle, and the pandemic didn’t help. It needs all its employers.

Take Georgia-Pacific. Monticello Mayor Martha Watts is fighting One Lake hook-line-and-sinker in no small part because One Lake could hurt the the Georgia-Pacific mill there since 1968 that employs about 450 people as well as 80 to 100 maintenance contractors. The mill has a permit to use the river as long as it follows the rules and cleans up after itself, Watts explained. Both Georgia-Pacific and the Town of Monticello follow environmental and cleanup rules, she added. “Our lagoon has never been cited. We do it right. We all are working together down here. Keeping things clean.”

But the mill company is nervous about additional costs and problems the One Lake project could present. “We are very concerned because of our high-level analysis of assumptions of possible downstream impacts is not optimistic,” Mayor Watts quoted a G-P representative saying in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She told the Crirec he fear is that the low water levels and warmer water temperatures will be extremely costly to work around, meaning potentially several million dollars each year in alteration and retrofitting existing infrastructure to accommodate less water and higher temperatures.

Becky Currie speaking at mic
Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, speaks about flooding and sewage issues from flooding on the Pearl River at the first of two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public meetings in Jackson, Miss., on May 24, 2023. Currie is a staunch opponent of One Lake. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Rep. Currie, who represents mostly rural Copiah, Lincoln and Lawrence counties down south of the project’s urban footprint, urged the Corps to nix One Lake, repeating the belief that it is a “private real estate development scheme masquerading as a flood control project.”

“I don’t believe that the flooding in Jackson, Mississippi, will be better,” she said at the May 24 forum in Jackson. “If you put a dam or whatever you’re proposing to do, you’re going to have more, more flooding. And I don’t think you can assure us that won’t happen.”

Mayor Watts pledged this week to fight even harder as One Lake faces increased scrutiny in upcoming months—and she doesn’t care whether backers add an R or a D behind their names.

“What I keep saying is one river, no lake,” she told the Crirec. “This is our river. It’s not their river. They can’t take ownership of it. They can’t be the proprietors of it. It’s everyone’s. That’s how God intended.

“They can’t steal it away and say to heck with what happens downstream. That’s wrong on every level.”

Ultimately, the One Lake plan is an urban-versus-rural debate in Mississippi and Louisiana. The choice is about the people of a struggling capital city desperately needed flood protection. It is also about representatives of small rural towns like Monticello with 1,359 residents, about a third of them Black, who are most terrified of waterfront development and visions of “Great City” wealth in the capital region wiping their towns and their livelihoods off the map.

It is about those people who know that the battle over a lake in the middle of Mississippi is about much more than political stereotypes or businessmen pitting themselves against nutball environmentalists.

It is also about the people in Louisiana swamplands who feed their families on income from swamp tours, shrimping and other seafood businesses, or running riverfront campgrounds who see their own blood, sweat and tears disappearing into what’s left of the Pearl River waters as they roll downstream.

This is the first in a series of articles through the summer of 2023 about One Lake and other potential Pearl River flooding solutions, including impacts downstream. Email Donna Ladd at [email protected] with comments or suggestions.

Clarification: An organizer of the Great City Jackson summit said they did not invite any elected officials, but asked some officials’ staff members to attend. Thus, while Rep. Bennie Thompson was not officially invited, members of his staff were asked to attend.

Awards:

2024 Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) Awards, Environmental Coverage, Finalist

Founding Editor Donna Ladd is a writer, journalist and editor from Philadelphia, Miss., a graduate of Mississippi State University and later the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where she was an alumni award recipient in 2021. She writes about racism/whiteness, poverty, gender, violence, journalism and the criminal justice system. She contributes long-form features and essays to The Guardian when she has time, and was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Jackson Free Press. She co-founded the statewide nonprofit Crirec with Kimberly Griffin in March 2020, and the Mississippi Business Journal named her one of the state's top CEOs in 2024. Read more at donnaladd.com, follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @donnerkay and email her at [email protected].