State Agencies Silenced on Lake Plans?


Mississippi Sierra Club Director Louie Miller said the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks is too silent on the issue of destroying wetlands along the Pearl River.

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks remains strangely silent and without comment on two plans to partially inundate a state park stagger drunkenly forward.

The Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District is considering a number of options to prevent another flood similar to the 1979 Pearl River inundation, which cost $200 million in damage to the area. Two of the plans under consideration, the Two Lakes Plan and the Lower Lake Plan, involve damming the Pearl River near the Interstate 20 bridge, creating shallow lakes to retain flood water.

The plans differ in size, however: The Two Lakes plan creates a 4,133-acre lake, while the Lower Lake plan creates a 1,500-acre lake. Both plans involve inundating the Mayes Lake campgrounds near Lakeland Drive and partial permanent flooding of Lefleur's Bluff State Park. The board opted for the smaller lake plan as its preferred option last year before second-guessing itself again this year on the Two Lakes plan.

While the battle rages, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, a taxpayer-funded state department charged with managing state parks, refuses to weigh in on the matter.

"I can't comment on anything that I have not seen," said department spokesman Jim Walker of the two plans to flood the Pearl River. "When and if official proposals are presented to our agency, we will naturally review them and have a comment … but in the case of the lake plans, we have yet to see anything, so we're reserving judgment until we get a chance to review these proposals."

Mississippi Sierra Club Director Louie Miller said the department—which contains an army of the state's most experienced biologists and houses an impressive assortment of wetland specialists at the Mississippi Natural Science Museum bordering the targeted park—should be a reservoir of information on any construction inside state wetlands and parks. He added that they should especially be ready to deliver a professional opinion to the public if developers have already put their plans to paper. Advocates of both plans have submitted projected lake waterlines, and estimated construction costs to the levee board.

Miller even went so far as claim that department biologists have been told to doctor reports that otherwise would have created problems for some state developments.

"What gets me is when their people are asked to modify their results to match the political outcome that the governor or the industry is seeking," Miller said. "The agencies should at least be providing the data based on science, and that's not happening. The agencies are tools for political outcomes, and it puts a huge burden on advocacy groups like the Sierra Club, which has to fill in and do the policing job that taxpayers are supposed to be paying for."

'By All Means, No'
One source familiar with the department said that department officials had specifically steered biologists to alter information on Mississippi-native fish the bayou darter: "If this agency built a reservoir on tributaries that are the only home in the world to the bayou darter, then it should never have happened, but the agency wrote review documents indicating that this was a doable project."

Walker denied that agency heads have ever told biologists to alter report findings to suit the needs of developers.

"By all means, no. That hasn't happened, to my knowledge. I can say with confidence that we know of no sort of thing like that ever happening," Walker said.

Still, sources close to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science admit that employees risk arbitrary transfer if they make statements critical of development to reporters or agencies outside the MDWFP.

Miller has referred some state employees to Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals who provide frank environmental information devoid of political influence.

PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said his organization reported that one-third of government employees queried nationally claimed their work was influenced by whatever politics happened to saturate their agency.

"We're sort of a giant shelter for battered staff, so we see this kind of thing all the time," Ruch told the Jackson Free Press. "It's disheartening to read a survey with one-third of respondents saying, 'Yes, I've been given orders to violate statutes or ignore environmental requirements.' This is a big issue, and it's not, by any means, confined to one area."

Miller said the department's political suppression must be a torment to agency biologists who recognize the fundamental importance of preserving the surrounding wetlands.

"That always burned me about the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks," Miller said. "They're going to destroy a state park there. They're going to take out Mayes Lake, part of LeFleur's Bluff, right there in their damn backyard, but have you heard a word out of the agency on any of this? No. They say, 'Oh, well it's premature for us to comment.' No, it's not. You have an investment there. The taxpayers have an investment there, which you've been charged with being responsible for, and you're saying 'fine, whatever'," Miller said.

Walker assured the Jackson Free Press that the department would not support any project "that is detrimental"to wildlife.

"And that could be any type of project, anywhere," Walker added. "If it is detrimental to wildlife, we will not support it."

Walker's assurance is counter to one massive MDWFP project in Copiah County. Calling Panther Lake, a 500-acre body of water located about 35 miles south of Jackson on Interstate 55, is the result of a $10 million legislative bond allowing the department to purchase 1,500 acres of land from the Georgia-Pacific Corp. in late 1997.

The new lake, created in 2002, is a fisherman's destination point, stocked with coppernose bluegill, redear, Florida largemouth bass and channel catfish, among other game fish. The presence of a rare and endangered fish living in the displaced stream that once occupied the lakebed seemed of little consequence to the agency, however.

The Center for Biological Diversity of Tucson, Ariz., describes the little-known bayou darter (Etheostoma rubrum) as endemic to the lower reaches of the tributaries of White Oak Creek, Foster Creek and Turkey Creek in Mississippi. It is a habitat specialist, according to CBD, "requiring swift, shallow riffles … over coarse gravel and pebble beds." Darter habitat is threatened, however, by gravel mining, the clearing of vegetation, road and bridge construction and riverbank cultivation, the organization said. Calling Panther Lake falls into that category, though MDWFP made little mention of this fact. The department even got to name the resulting lake that swallowed the rare fish's habitat.

Remember the Carp
The state agency is walking a second, dangerous path after sanctioning the introduction of a potentially invasive species of carp that could destroy the state's freshwater shellfish population.

The department agreed to the use of the Asian black carp as a biological control agent to battle the spread of a trematode parasite (white grub) in catfish ponds. Environmental agencies in other states, like the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, consider the animal a potential ecological hazard. The fish uses thick molar-type teeth to crush the shells of mollusks and crustaceans, and even at the age of four it will eat three or four pounds of mollusks every day, "posing a direct threat to one of the most diverse mollusk faunas in the world," according to the ODWC.

The Oklahoma agency also warns that the fish, one of many potential Asian aquatic invaders on the North American continent, pose a serious threat to ecosystem integrity that goes beyond the extermination of beneficial mollusks. Black carp, it said, could potentially displace other mollusk-eaters, and the fish hosts a "wide array of parasites that could have negative impacts on native species, and potentially even humans."

Nevertheless, the MDWFP has made no move to discourage the use of the invader, especially not over the preferences of catfish enthusiasts like Mississippi Department of Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell, who a source said pushed for the introduction of the animal to control catfish pond parasites.

Spell did not return calls.

Andy Prosser, director of market development and public relations with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture, did not confirm that Spell had demanded MDWFP concede to his wishes, but defended his department's vigilance over the carp.

"It helps keep down parasites that mess up the meat," Prosser said. "We do strongly regulate the use of the fish. We limit its use to catfish ponds, and they can't use them unless they are permitted by the Department of Agriculture.

Previous Comments


We've now set up an archive of the JFP's Two Lakes, etc., coverage.



Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment