Muscle Meets Bivalve


John McGowan and McGowan Working Partners laud the city of Jackson's economic benefit of the Two Lakes plan, a proposed project that would dam the Pearl River and create a series of islands between Hinds and Rankin counties.

The oilman tells the Jackson Free Press that the plan is, first and foremost, an endeavor to prevent losses comparable to the more than $200 million in property damage resulting from the 1979 Easter flood. He claims the plan will offer more than 90 percent effectiveness in preventing flooding, while competing plans such as the smaller Lower Lake plan and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' plan to expand the levee system between Hinds and Rankin counties offer about 70 percent effectiveness or less.

The McGowan plan's most recent incarnation creates a 4,133-acre lake containing 36 islands ranging from 1.6 acres to 40 acres. That particular project was up for consideration before the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District last month, and is getting serious consideration to be the levee board's locally preferred alternative to the Corps' levees-only plan.

Although flood control is allegedly the first target, development is indisputably high up on the agenda.

"All that swamp out therečthe water's stagnant and poor quality and (doesn't) attract nobody," McGowan said. "Now picture that same area containing a large, pristine lake surrounded by stores, homes and people just walkingčwalking and enjoying the evening, just watching the sun go down, or visiting shops. Can you imagine what that could do for Jackson?"

The Levee Board has voted countless times on other plans, once favoring a levees-only plan, and later approving a smaller-lake version of McGowan's vision. Despite numerous upsets, McGowan says his plan relentlessly stays in the mix because of its sheer popularity with local residents.

He may be right. Many Jackson residents, long envious of the exploding development around the reservoir, consider McGowan's plan to be a shot in the arm that could expand tax revenues. But its not just about Jackson.

The Pearl River is a 490-mile drain winding the distance between Tallahaga Creek in Winston County and the Mississippi Sound, a low-salt reservoir formed by river outlets in the Mississippi Gulf. It affects many industries between here and the Gulf. Many of those industries don't appear to view McGowan's vision as the same kind of boon.

They're Shucked

George "Teddy" Busick is chairman of the Gulf Oyster Industry Council, the association that lobbies Congress on behalf of the oyster industry. Busick is wary of the Two Lakes developmentčor practically any development, for that matterčon the Pearl.

"That ... lake is going to really impact us in a serious way," Busick said. "The oyster industry (along the coast) requires a perfect balance between salt and freshwater in the Mississippi Sound and in other spots."

Mike Voisin, an oyster dealer and chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, is equally passionate about any potential change in the Pearl River. "Oysters are produced in five-to 15 parts-per-thousand (salt content), so you need (slightly salty) water to grow them in a sustained environment. Anything below that, and you have sea predators."

The common oyster is plagued by another mollusk known as the "oyster drill," a snail with specialized teeth made to rasp all the way through an oyster's shell. Once the tenacious critter gets access to the chewy bits inside, the defenseless oyster is, for lack of a better word, shucked.

The snail has a lower tolerance for freshwater than the oyster, however, and avoids the vast oyster farms coagulating around the freshwater-saturated mouth of the Pearl River. But the oyster is still a sea creature, and if the seawater gets mixed with too much river water, oyster farmers suffer a high mortality rate among their stationary flock.

"The Pearl helps to create that balance," Voisin explained, "and it's way too easy to tamper with it."

The water level of the Pearl River shifts painfully. In early April, the level of West Pearl River was in flood stages, threatening to inundate whole Louisiana neighborhoods. In summer, however, the sun can beat down for months, turning the floodwaters of spring into a smelly trickle of low-oxygen liquid refuse. That, says Tulane University geology adjunct professor Barry Kohl, is when river dams do the most damage.

"The Pearl has a lot of springs that feed it. Put a dam in, and you've got a lake with a water level that humans must now work to maintain. After that, the emphasis is no longer upon watching the level of the water in front of the dam, but keeping the water behind it."

Voisin and Busick, like Kohl, are convinced that one more dam on the river could lower the amount of freshwater pouring out of the already fussy Pearl River. The oyster industry is already trying to counter the river's temperamental behavior by convincing the state of Louisiana to further open the Bonnet Carre spillway and flushing more Mississippi River water into the Mississippi Sound.

God's Plumbing

Other Louisiana businesses are familiar with the volatile Pearl and bicker with the government for more access to the water. Business owners, like Honey Island Swamp Tours owner Dr. Paul Wagner has complained to biologists that a diversion at Wilson Slough in Louisiana's St. Tammany Parish had lowered the portion of the river passing his business by one or two feet, essentially moving the waterline away from his boats.

Mississippi towns like Picayune have also been victims of the river's unsustainable water level. The EPA has issued violations to Picayune several times when its main sewage treatment plant dumped more gray water back into the river than the water level could sustain without eutrophication.

Even the wastewater-treatment plant back in Jackson would suffer from any decrease in river level beneath the weir. Incoming Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. must already contend with an outdated sewage treatment plant that is dumping more waste back into the river than the federal government wants.

McGowan, meanwhile, is unlikely to solve that one issue by building the southernmost weir beneath the wastewater plant. No developer likely wants a wastewater plant dumping organic sludge into their pristine man-made lake.

Kohl said the mechanics of the Pearl River are no different from the plumbing in your house.

"It's all about cause and effect," Kohl said. "Do something in one place, and something else somewhere will be adversely impacted. Cut on the water hose outside, and you can't take a shower or fill the toilet. Same process."

McGowan and his representatives deny the potential for lowering the river.

Engineer Robert Muller, who works with McGowan, denounced the water-lowering theory outright, particularly the water-lowering theories coming out of Tammany Parish.

"We run into this problem where people say things that aren't true," Muller said. "I had a conversation with a lady at the Times-Picayune where the folks down in Tammany Parish said if we install Two Lakes the Pearl will be lowered. They had nothing to substantiate that. ... Until you have a document that you can lay in front of the EPA and in front of the environmental groups, you can't debate the issues in an honest manner."

Still, opinions like Kohl's are putting oyster growers on edge. Industry representatives say they are a powerful lobby both in Louisiana and the federal government, and will fight bitterly, and legally, if development in Mississippi threatens their livelihood.

"We're talking about a whole industry here," said Busick, who claims the powerful oyster lobby is the "only reason you still get to eat raw half-shell." He warned that Louisiana eyes will be watching Jackson closely in the upcoming months.

Previous Comments


It sounds like the battle is on. Let the show begin!



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