One LakeBy ANTHONY WARREN,
Attorney threatens legal action over group’s claims
A legal battle could be brewing over the One Lake Project, and whether an environmental advocacy group is spreading false information about the project.
The Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) is saying that evaporations of water from One Lake will significantly reduce water flows along the Pearl River, leading to a loss of habitat for wildlife and affecting commercial fisheries.
Officials with the New Orleans-based group say they have data backing that claim from a St. Tammany Parish engineer.
The claims have led several local governments in south Mississippi and Louisiana to pass resolutions in opposition of the project.
Rankin-Hinds Flood and Drainage Control District attorney Keith Turner, though, said he has never seen the network’s data, despite requests, and is urging that organization to stop spreading the “unsupported claims.”
He warned GRN that their statements “may be considered actionable.”
Turner e-mailed and mailed the letter to GRN Water Programs Director Andrew Whitehurst on February 23.
The letter included a news article from the Sunshine State News showing how an environmental activist in Florida was forced to pay $4.4 million for interfering in a water restoration project there.
In a response, GRN is doing “exactly what citizens in a democracy are supposed to do: communicate positions and submit documents to elected officials … about a public project affecting public resources.”
Whitehurst further told the Sun that he is not spreading false information, but providing data based on an engineering analysis.
At the heart of the matter is how the One Lake Project will impact river flows downstream.
One Lake is a flood control and economic development project that calls for the creation of a 1,500-acre lake along the Pearl River from north of Lakeland Drive to south of I-20 near Richland.
Once it’s in place, the lake is expected to reduce flooding in the event of another Easter Flood by 90 percent. The Easter Flood of 1979 inundated much of Jackson and parts of Rankin County.
The project also would create thousands of acres of developable waterfront property, as well as new land for recreational opportunities.
Whitehurst, though, claims the lake would reduce flow on the river near the Mississippi Gulf Coast by 90 cubic feet per second, or approximately 130 million gallons of water per day.
“That’s the information I’ve been disseminating,” he said. “I’ve approached everybody I’ve wanted to.”
As a result of Whitehurst’s testimony, a number of local governments have passed resolutions in opposition of One Lake, including St. Tammany Parish, Washington Parish and the cities of Bogalusa and Pearl River in Louisiana, and Marion County, in Mississippi.
The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources have also come out against the project.
Turner says those governments have passed resolutions based on false data.
“We have studied downstream effects of the project – the water quantity and quality. Quantity was the primary concern, when we started,” he said. “Some people worried about too little flow, some worried about too much flow and some worried about changing the flow so dramatically that it would cause bank caving.
“We studied that (and) there is no impact downstream.”
Turner questions Whitehurst’s figures, saying GRN hasn’t conducted a study to back up their claims, and that requests to see a copy of GRN’s data have been ignored.
“If they have the science I want to see it. If he has any evidence specific to our project bring it forward,” Turner said. “We want to hear it. We want to see it.”
Whitehurst said an evaluation was done by Elizabeth Smythe, an engineer with St. Tammany Parish.
Smythe couldn’t be reached for comment nor could St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister.
One Lake is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The corps has already determined that the project will work hydraulically, and to ensure that flow along the river remains the same, One Lake must release the same amounts of water downstream as the Ross Barnett Reservoir.
The 33,000-acre reservoir was constructed in the 1960s to address low flow times along the Pearl River.
“Flows got so low they couldn’t get water into the treatment plant. Jackson needed more water to sustain its population and grow,” reservoir General Manager John Sigman said.
“We have a contract dated 1959 with the city of Jackson to (release) a minimum of 147 cubic feet per second. We can never reduce the flow,” he said.
One-hundred forty-seven cubic feet is equal to 212 million gallons of water per day.
Prior to the construction of the reservoir, during the drier summer months, residents could walk across the river’s banks and barely get their shoes wet.
St. Tammany officials, though, point to the reservoir as the reason flows along the Pearl River have dropped.
In a letter to the St. Tammany Parish Council, Director of Engineering Eddie Williams said evaporation of surface water at the Ross Barnett has caused flows at Bogalusa to decrease from 1,100 cubic feet per second to 1,020.
He said additional decreases would lead to saltwater intrusion into the Pearl, as well as loss of habitat and loss of commercial fisheries.
The Pearl empties into the Mississippi Sound, along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
According to a copy of the St. Tammany resolution, reduced water flow would, among other complications, reduce the oxygen levels in the Pearl and the Honey Island Swamp estuaries. Additionally, it would jeopardize the ringed saw-back turtle, the Gulf sturgeon and inflated hell splitter mussel.
Requests to find out how St. Tammany determined this information were not responded to.
One Lake was drawn up by Northsider John McGowan as an alternative to his earlier Two Lakes project. It was chosen as an environmentally friendly alternative to Two Lakes.
Before One Lake can be implemented, it must go through a rigorous review and public comment process, and be signed off on by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers national headquarters.
The initial review was completed by Pickering Engineering and signed off on by the corps’ Vicksburg district. The project is now in the “agency technical review,” and is being studied by a team of experts from across the United States. Once that’s completed, the project will undergo an “external peer review” with a corps-approved consulting firm. The Columbus, Oh. based Battelle Research has been chosen for the third phase.
The contract is for $84,000 and being paid for by Rankin-Hinds. The foundation is a nonprofit supporting the creation the project.