Environmental fiascos are not unusual around New Orleans. After all, it is in a state that measures its vanishing wetlands in football-fields-per-month.
The current expected crisis is not the encroaching Gulf of Mexico: it’s quietly flowing from the east: the Pearl River.
A planned lake and residential development (One Lake) in upriver Jackson, Mississippi, may forever change the Pearl, including “downriver,” as it is known. And, the changes to New Orleans and the surrounding area could be catastrophic.
What could be bad about One Lake? Construction would dredge seven miles of the river and destroy that area’s ecosystem, remove hundreds of acres of bottomland forest, block the migration route of the threatened gulf sturgeon, damage habitat for endangered map and sawback turtles. Keeping the lake level steady would mean lessening flow downriver in time of drought or releasing torrents in heavy rain: water levels in the lower Pearl would change erratically.
The Pearl flows for 115 miles along the toe of the Louisiana boot. Besides setting up a committee to study the Pearl, the Louisiana State Legislature came out against One Lake as did the governments of the bordering parishes of Washington and St. Tammany. Environmental groups in both states are up in arms.
One Lake began when a multi-million-dollar flood devastated Jackson, Mississippi, in 1979. There were immediate calls for a comprehensive local flood control project. Years passed: no idea gained traction.
By 1996, Jackson land owner and developer John McGowan, fueled by funds from his oil and gas company, proposed adding a lake encircled by commercial and housing developments below the Ross Barnett Reservoir, already sited on the Pearl River above Jackson.
In the years since then, his tenacity has paid off. His One Lake Project collected support from city and state government. Business groups got on board, as did the powerful Mississippi Congressional delegation.
Touted as a flood control project for the two counties surrounding Jackson (Rankin and Hinds), approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers required environmental and economic studies, since completed, only from that immediate area. The effect downriver was not even considered (although the government has required a biologic study of effects along the Pearl’s downriver length to be done by September.)
One Lake is progressing toward construction as it wends its way through legal hurdles and financial questioning. At this point, the decision to allow construction may come as early as the end of 2018.
Most Orleanians know the Pearl only as the brown water under Interstate 10 between Slidell and the Mississippi coast. Those who live along its banks know it in a different way.
State Representative Malinda White of Bogalusa has a family camp on the Pearl River. “I could be in the middle of a safari, but I’m right here in Washington Parish: it’s peaceful, it’s tranquil, you see all kinds of wildlife.” she explained.
But, there are problems. “Over the years, the river has changed,” she noted. “The river bank is getting closer to our camp.” The current Ross Barnet Reservoir above Jackson can cause the water level to shift. “It can be completely dry here, with dust on the road. If it rains up north and they release the water, it might go up very fast. In the past 15 years we’ve seen it happen – the banks cave in, the trees go down. All of that is going south.”
White serves on the Legislative committee, chaired by State Sen. Sharon Hewitt of Slidell. The goal is to find funding for an authority to manage the Pearl River. Hearings in Baton Rouge and Slidell were held in late August.
One problem is being eliminated: federal money has been found to remove a miles-long log and trash jam in the Bogalusa area. Another problem – a canal dug in the 1950s for transportation but deactivated – may result in Louisiana assuming the land and waterway.
The Pearl’s problems can have effects closer to New Orleans. Dr. John Lopez, Director of the Coastal Stability Program for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation noted that one fifth of the lake’s fresh water comes from the Pearl. Should there be a more restricted flow or less fresh water in the Pearl, the salinity of the lake and its surrounding land could change. Oyster beds in Lake Borgne and along the Mississippi coast could be affected adversely by an influx of fresh water.
One happy result of the closing of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet in 2009 was that the salt level in the land around the lake decreased. Cypress trees cannot tolerate too much salt: nowadays they have a chance to thrive.
“We have actually been planting cypress seedlings for 5 years and have an 80 percent survival rate.” Lopez said. “Anything that brings the salinity up would threaten the really massive recovery that has been happening all around Lake Pontchartrain and the wetlands.” The LPBF has sent letters of objection concerning the One Lake project.
Jessica Gauley from Honey Island Kayak Tours grew up in Pearl River, Louisiana, and makes her living on the Pearl. “I’m really concerned about our mussel species. They are considered keystone species: without them we are not going to have a healthy river,” she said. “When I was a child the bluefer mussels would be big as dinner plates: now they are about the size of my hands.” A 2011 black liquor spill from the Bogalusa paper mill was hard on the mussels. “We are down to 23 species from 29.”
The Pearl was named for the pearly interior of old mussel shells on the river bottom shining through the water. Andrew Jackson’s engineer noted this while chronicling the General’s route to battle in 1815: they crossed the Pearl near Angie, Louisiana, and followed the path of Louisiana Highway 21 (Military Road) to Madisonville on their way to New Orleans.
Abby Braman, formerly a military helicopter pilot, moved to Jackson, Mississippi, with her family two years ago and quickly grew to love the Pearl River. After getting concerned with trash along the riverbank, she followed directions from the national Waterkeeper Alliance and became the Riverkeeper for the Pearl. Massive CleanSweep trash removal days were held Saturday, September 15 and 22 in both states.
Braman said the nearly 100 companies with dumping permits are also concerned: changes in flow and “having a wide-open lake with the sun shining on it: their permits have limits on flow and temperature.”
Josh Mitchell, of the Walkiah Bluff area near Picayune, Mississippi, has long hunted and fished the Pearl (and found an ancient steam engine and boards from old flatboats from the Pearl’s navigable days.) “This One Lake project has the potential to do even more damage down here before they fix the real issues we already have.” he pointed out.
The Pearl splits into several streams as it nears its end, and this is the area Mitchell is most concerned about. The Louisiana side is capturing more water than the Mississippi side – the now-closed canal, the log jam, the many low dams (weirs and sills) that block water flow already.
These are the areas that both locals and environmentalists agree need attention and support now, before time runs out for good on the Pearl’s delicate ecosystems.
Do your bit to help our watery neighbor: check out PearlRiverKeeper.com and take part at a CleanSweep location. And, register at http://rankinhindsflooddistrict.ms.gov/report/ to download required reports.
Editor’s Note: U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise has recently introduced legislation requiring that the One Lake project must be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before it receives federal funding. Originally, such funding could have been made prior to Corps approval.