The Pearl River’s Future is at Stake

Published 11:39 am Friday, July 5, 2024

By Andrew Whitehurst

Since 2013, the Pearl River in Jackson, Mississippi, has been at the center of a heated debate over flood risk management. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District have spearheaded the controversial “One Lake Project.” Last summer, key stakeholders, including Healthy Gulf, gathered for project scoping meetings, marking the beginning of a new draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. Now, as the DEIS document, released on June 7, enters its 60-day comment period, ending on August 6th, we have a chance to make our voices heard on the future of the Pearl River, our communities, and the environment.

The Alternatives

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The DEIS outlines four alternatives for managing the Pearl River’s flood risks.

  1. Alternative A1: This non-structural approach focuses on floodproofing, elevating homes and businesses, and voluntary buyouts in Jackson’s flood-prone areas. It promises minimal environmental impact and low mitigation costs. Alternative A1 is the only plan that does not involve further dredging of the Pearl River.
  2. Alternative C: Dubbed the “One Lake” plan, this proposal involves dredging ten miles of the river, installing a low-head dam, and creating a 2,000-acre lake. While it promises significant flood mitigation, the Army Corps has deemed it economically unjustifiable with a poor benefit-to-cost ratio.
  3. Alternative CTO-D: CTO means “combination thereof” using elements of Alternatives C and A1. This plan would create a 1,700-acre lake over an eight-mile river section. It also involves extensive dredging and creating new land out of the dredge spoil, on the back side of existing levees for recreation and commercial development. It includes some non-structural features. However, this plan requires costly mitigation for habitat and wetland damage.
  4. Alternative CTO-E: Similar to CTO-D above but without the weir or lake, this option involves bank dredging and creating new land for recreation and development. It too demands expensive environmental mitigation.

The DEIS makes a startling admission: the proposed weir in Alternatives C and CTO-D offers no flood control benefits. A weir cannot store floodwaters; instead, the flood risk reduction comes from widening the river channel with bank dredging. The weir only serves to create a recreational lake. The wider flow area, created by removing bottomland forest and swamps along the river’s banks speeds water through the project area. Additionally, both CTO plans change river level enough that they are predicted by Corps modelers to induce new flooding in 52 structures, mostly in vulnerable, low-income neighborhoods, creating new problems where they didn’t exist, necessitating further compensation.

Downstream Dilemmas

For those living downstream, the DEIS acknowledges that more investigation is needed to rule out high flow-impacts as far down as the Mississippi Gulf Coast during a 100-year flood event. Other crucial low-flow and sediment transport studies are deferred to later planning and engineering stages. The report calls for a comprehensive Pearl River Watershed study, from headwaters to the mouth, to be authorized by Congress—a step many argue should happen before any further alterations.

Threats to Endangered Species

Alternative A1 is the only plan presented by the Army Corps that would have no negative impacts on Pearl River ecosystems. All other plans involve dredging the river channel and banks, disrupting, and destroying habitats for some of the area’s most vulnerable species.

The Pearl River is a vital habitat for over 300 species of birds, fish, and wildlife, including eight federally listed threatened species. Further dredging and damming could have serious consequences for a variety of species: Gulf sturgeon, Ringed sawback turtle, bald eagle, Louisiana black bear, and the rare and endemic Pearl River map turtle.

The Economic Puzzle

It is a shame that the Army Corps of Engineers has been swayed by Jackson’s decade-long urban riverfront dream as the tone of the documents reveals. The DEIS subtly undermines Alternative A1 while highlighting potential benefits of CTO-D, aligning with the vision of Jackson’s business community. It is no secret the non-federal sponsor wants to change the Pearl River in Jackson into a riverfront development. When new land is built on the back of existing levees along a new urban lake, it is hoped that lucrative development will follow, making Jackson a “destination city”. Worse, the Army Secretary for Civil Works seems poised to approve an alternative that could further disrupt a river system already altered by the Ross Barnett Reservoir and dam for 62 years.

Given the lack of economic justification for Alternative C, the DEIS proposes focusing on A1, CTO-D, and CTO-E. The non-structural A1 plan emerges as the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly option. Non-structural flood management strategies are gaining popularity nationwide, as old dams are being removed to restore natural river flows.

A History of Disinvestment

Jackson, Mississippi, is a city grappling with a legacy of budget and infrastructure problems. With a poverty level of 24.5%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Jackson has seen population and tax base decline as residents move to suburban counties. This exodus has drained the city of tax revenues, exacerbating struggles to maintain aging infrastructure, including water treatment and sewage treatment facilities.

In 2022, this chronic lack of resources reached a crisis point when flooding from the Pearl River triggered a severe drinking water emergency, disproportionately affecting Black residents. This incident underscored the urgent need for a flood management solution that doesn’t compound existing vulnerabilities or cause harmful impacts downstream.

Call to Action

The comment portal is open at Public meetings will be held in Slidell, LA (July 11 at 11 a.m.), Monticello, MS (July 11 at 6 p.m.), and Jackson, MS (July 10 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.). Details can be found on the Vicksburg Army Corps website under the Pearl River FRM Project section.

One of these crucial gatherings will take place on July 11 in Slidell, Louisiana, at the Slidell Municipal Auditorium, 2056 2nd Street. This 11 a.m. meeting is the closest venue for residents from coastal Louisiana and Mississippi to voice concerns about the project’s impact on the river downstream, through seven Mississippi Counties and three Louisiana Parishes, all the way to the Rigolets and Lake Borgne.

The DEIS document, complete with an executive summary and a candid 17-page report from the Vicksburg District Commander, lays bare the excessive costs involved in all options except A1. As the comment period draws to a close, the fate of the Pearl River—and the communities it sustains—hangs in the balance. Will Jackson’s dream of urban transformation outweigh the ecological and economic realities?

We at Healthy Gulf stand firmly against further damming of the Pearl River, advocating for the Army Corps to advance a plan that is both environmentally acceptable and economically justified. Learn more about our work with the Pearl River and other issues affecting the health and wellbeing of coastal communities around the Gulf at

About the author: Andrew Whitehurst is the Water Program Director at Healthy Gulf, working to develop and implement healthy waters campaigns in Mississippi and advancing Healthy Gulf’s public policy positions through administrative comment writing, public education, and mobilization.