With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently saying it would have a minimal environmental impact, supporters of the One Lake project are now focusing on the final phase of the approval process: getting leaders in the nation’s capital to sign off on plans to allow for its construction.
Recently, fish and wildlife released a report saying One Lake would have a negligible impact on the environment, in particular, on the two endangered species in the project’s footprint. Officials hope to submit that report, along with the revised One Lake plan to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Army for final approval by the year’s end.
The secretary’s review will be the final step in a grueling evaluation process that has included reviews by the Vicksburg corps, a second corps office unaffiliated with the project, and other government agencies.
“The process has been a long process,” said Keith Turner, attorney for the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage District, the local board backing the project.
‘There’s been a lot of study and analysis.”
Last year, Rankin-Hinds released its draft report evaluating the $355 million project, and opened it up for public comment. Thousands of comments were submitted during the public commenting period. All comments have to be reviewed and addressed by One Lake consultants as part of its final report, before it can be submitted to the feds.
Because the project is being funded in part with federal dollars (The 2007 Water Resources Development Act authorized $133 million in federal monies for the work.), and would affect a major U.S. waterway, it is subject to various levels of federal review.
“We’re still editing and revising based on the public comment process,” Turner said. “Once that’s complete, which we hope by the end of the year, we will be able to submit the plan to D.C.
“That’s the biggest hurdle – finishing the editing and revising.”
However, with the release of the fish and wildlife report, One Lake officials feel like they finally have the wind at their back.
The findings represent a major victory for supporters of the flood control and economic development project, who for years have been battling environmentalists.
Among concerns, local conservation groups have questioned the impact the project would have on gulf sturgeon and ringed map turtles. Others were concerned about the impact the lake would have on downstream flow levels.
The report states that the report would have minor impact on the sturgeon and turtle populations. Additionally, the agency states that the lake and the new weir would not impact current downstream flow levels.
Further, Fish and Wildlife contends that One Lake would complement the nearby LeFleur’s Bluff State Park, by offering new opportunities for activities such as hiking, outdoor photography and wildlife viewing.
One Lake includes the construction of a 1,500-acre lake along the Pearl River, from just north of Lakeland Drive to south of I-20 near Richland. To create the lake, a weir near the waterworks curve would be removed and replaced with a new weir near Richland.
The lake is designed to reduce flooding, by helping move water downstream in the event of a major flood. The lake would also mean the creation of thousands of acres of new waterfront property, which could be developed or set aside for recreational use.
The biological opinion states that project construction likely have the greatest impact on the turtles and sturgeon. For turtles, the construction would result in “the temporary loss of food, basking habitat and nesting habitat” in the affected area.
The study looked at a roughly 19-mile stretch of the river, from the reservoir dam to two miles south of the proposed /I-20 Richland weir.
In all, the agency estimates that about 8,800 turtles would be affected by construction, trapping and relocation, loss of habitat, temporary changes in water flow and water quality, and displacement.
The numbers represents a small percentage of the overall ringed map turtle population.
Through construction, the feds estimate that about 9.5 miles of riverine habitat (two percent of the total habitat range for the turtles) would be lost, another 1.6 miles would be destabilized due to increased sedimentation.
Construction would also impact feeding grounds for juvenile sturgeon. It estimates that about 20 sturgeon would be harmed during the lake’s five-year construction period.
Fish and Wildlife recommends several steps to mitigate the impacts, including relocating turtle eggs to unaffected areas. Additional steps would have to be taken once construction is complete, including setting aside acreage for turtle habitats and establishing and enforcing no-wake zones to protect turtle nesting areas.
To protect sturgeon, the agency recommends building a fish bypass channel as part of the new weir to allow for continued migration along the river.
It states that once construction is completed, water quality would return to normal and animal populations would stabilize.
Officials with the Mississippi Wildlife Federation and the Gulf Restoration Network, two agencies opposed to One Lake, couldn’t be reached for comment.