John Sigman has served as the executive director of the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District (PRVWSD), the state agency that manages the Ross Barnett Reservoir and surrounding property, for 10 years. Sigman earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering at Mississippi State University and master’s in business administration from Millsaps College. He recently spoke with Sun staff writer Nikki Rowell about the PRVWSD response to flooding, efforts against giant salvinia and more.
What all went into the recent flood recovery on the PRVWSD side?
“We had, of course, some flood damage like everyone else. We had some properties that were inundated. Some of the repairs are for us to do, and some are for the leaseholders to do. We didn’t really have any major damage.”
Looking back at it, is there anything that you would change about how the flood was handled?
“I think we handled it pretty well. It became aware to us on Monday morning that we might have a flood coming and then at 9:30 on Monday morning when we had our weather service call, it was evident that we had a major flood coming. So, we sat down and tried to figure out the best way we could address the flood. At that point, the lake was down to 295 in anticipation of the salvinia. So, I went downtown and participated in the mayor’s press conference, and it became apparent to me that a lot of people were going to have water in their homes and their streets and so forth. And the best thing we could do was give them as much time as possible to evacuate. We looked at our situation, and I told them we could store the water for two days. After that, the streets were going to flood. So, we basically gave them two days without water in most of the streets. I think that was a good approach. It was the first time we’ve taken that approach because we’ve very seldom had that much storage capacity in the lake. So, it was good in that respect that we were able to do that. Normally, we would not.”
Would you say that having the lake already lowered to treat salvinia helped buy some time?
“That was a blessing. That helped buy several days. In the end, the river went to what it was going to go to, because we can’t hold water indefinitely. But it bought people time. I regret people’s houses being flooded, and they probably disagree with me, but I think that approach allowed five to six hundred homes to evacuate or sandbag or whatever they needed to do.”
After something like this, does the board take some time to look back on it and consider what went right and ways to improve for next time?
“The staff definitely does. We go back and make recommendations to the board.”
How was the coordination among agencies during the flood response?
“It was better than I’ve ever seen it. We’ve always had good coordination with the weather service, with the U.S. Geological Survey, Corps of Engineers. They always chip in. But this time we had great involvement from emergency management organizations, county and state, law enforcement and some others. There was open communication. We were frank with each other. We told each other what needed to be known. It really worked well. At our meetings every morning during the flood, we sought advice of the emergency management people. They were able to give their input and we could adjust as needed. That communication was the best I’ve ever seen, and I think that benefitted the citizens.”
During this period, the reservoir has gotten some heat for not being a flood control body. Could you explain the purpose of the Barnett Reservoir?
“It is not a flood control structure, and physically cannot be. There’s an article that the reservoir designer wrote in 1965 explaining why the reservoir cannot be flood control, recreation and water supply. The primary purpose behind the reservoir and its inception was water supply. It was built to provide water for the growing city of Jackson so that it could be what it could be as far as economic development and support to the state capitol and all these kinds of things. And, of course, recreation is a great thing. Our act, our legislation does say flood control. But, it just couldn’t happen. The average depth of the reservoir is 10 feet. You just can’t store water. During this flood, we had a lot of capacity. We had three feet of capacity. It just can’t be.”
Since you all had planned to raise the water level back up after treating salvinia, will it be reduced again before that?
“We will not lower the level again in the future. Our course is set. In this case, the board of directors approved the emergency plan for salvinia. They approved lowering it to 295, but also approved raising back to 297.5 by March 1. No further reduction is mentioned. It’s been at that level for the
See John Sigman, Page 7A
last five or six years. It would make it harder to handle that type of flooding, no question about it.”
Did the flood have any effect on you guys preparing for summer or on the treatment of giant salvinia?
“No, when the lake was as high as it has ever been, it didn’t flood our parks. It flooded our boat ramps. We did have several properties flood, but they’ve recovered. So, by and large, we are ready to go to the summer season now.”
Could you just give me a general update on giant salvinia and the eradication efforts going on now?
“We have been battling salvinia now for over a year and a half. We had the lake down in February for the continued battle, but we had to sacrifice that space in order to prevent water from going into more houses downstream. That’s an easy choice, by the way, when you get to that point. Our partners at Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, most recently last week, they could not find any salvinia. So, they think we have beat it. We will still keep those areas in Pelahatchie Bay blocked off where the plant was, and we will install a new barrier under the Causeway that will allow boats to pass from Pelahatchie Bay to the main lake and back. That’s going to be a great relief to boaters. So, we think we are in good shape.”