Tuesday, August 25, 2009
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has told the local levee board that it has to agree on a flood-control plan for the Pearl River by the end of Septemberand is warning that two controversial development plans are likely already dead in the water due to financial and environmental barriers.
Gary Walker, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers' Vicksburg district, told the Jackson Free Press Monday that the corps will pull the plug on all options at the end of September if the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District, the "levee board," does not come to an agreement with the corps on a flood-control plan by then. He also suggested that any lake plan proposed by the levee board, be it the Two Lakes Plan or the less ambitious Lower Lake Plan, would inevitably hit a brick wall with the corps, and that levees are its preferred option.
"The Two Lakes plan, you can make a variation of it, but it's still Two Lakes. That's the way we see it. It's still very questionable, and we'll discuss that with the board on the ninth," Walker said. "Federal law may have changed some things regarding the economic feasibility of the lake plan, but as far as environmental concerns, the levee plan is really the only plan that meets our criteria."
Walker said the corps told the levee board about its plans over a month ago. "We sent them a letter July 1 saying if they chose not to proceed with a state levee plan, we intend to terminate on 30th September," Walker told the Jackson Free Press. "The levees-only plan was originally the only plan that met our criteria of environmental sensibility and economic feasibility."
In the letter, Col. Michael W. Wehr told the levee board: "Please be advised that we intend to terminate the Feasibility Cost-Sharing Agreement and these studies on September 30, 2009, in the absence of an agreement with RHPRFDCD (the levee board) to support completion of the preliminary draft feasibility report which recommends the National Economic Development levee plan."
Levee board member Socrates Garrett downplayed the corps' warning, saying Tuesday that he believes the board could still hash out a flood-control plan that could also provide an economic bonus to the region: "Of course, the levee board has input on the upcoming flood plan. Otherwise, what's the purpose of the local body, the levee board?" Garrett asked, and added that he would be attending the Sept. 9 meeting with a sense of optimism.
Several popular designs have competed against the corps' levee-only plan for years now, many advocated by a combination of strong personalities including Jackson oilman John McGowan, Waggoner Engineering and other local developers. The McGowan plan has evolved over the years into its more recent incarnation: taking land by eminent domain, then flooding the Pearl River between Hinds and Rankin counties and creating a 4,133-acre lake containing 36 islands ranging in size from 1.6 acres to 40 acres.
The levee board has since advocated a more modest lake plan involving a smaller lake occupying about half the space of the McGowan plan. But the levee board pulled its short-lived support for the smaller lake plan last month. Board Chairman Billy Orr said that the corps should move forward with its deliberations free of the local board's bias toward any particular plan.
Advocates for one or the other lake plan argue that lakefront property would prove a boon to local business development, while opponents argue the district will have to raise property taxes to fund either of the lake projects and that the subsequent flooding will inundate precious wetland territory, and keep the state mired in environmental lawsuits for years. The corps states bluntly that the lake plans officially put before it will not overcome tough environmental issues, and that the financial rate of return of a lake plan does not justify the investment.
Representatives of the corps will meet with the local levee board Sept. 9 to try to hash out a plan that the corps is willing to move on, though early corps statements now make it clear that the federal body is only open to the levee-only plan. While Walker assured the JFP that it's not too late in the process to devise a flood-control plan, he said a plan would only see the light of day "if there was a foreseeable positive outcome."