Plan B? Flood Control Beyond Lakes and Levees


Richland Mayor Mark Scarborough voted with the majority for a levee plan.

Part 2 in a Series

Flood-control options for the Pearl River seem limited as Jackson-area residents compare the ungainly design of the levee plan designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1996 with the $1.4 billion cost of a lake-development plan.

The Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District approved the $206 million levee plan in December as the Corps threatened to pull the federal government's $133 million contribution to flood control along the Pearl if the Levee Board did not take action. The levee plan has been a virtually unchanged, and extremely unattractive, option since 1996, but has languished as the Levee Board has grappled with, and finally accepted, the massive legal, environmental and cost hurdles surrounding an idyllic-sounding Two Lakes plan that supporters promise will turn Jackson into a "Little Venice."

When the Levee Board voted to pursue levees, it took the controversial and costly development plan off the table. The effect of that decision has been to finally shine a bright light on a levees plan not updated significantly since the Corps developed it in 1996.

Local residents now face a quagmire. Being that both the lakes and the levees plans have immense drawbacks, is there a plan B?

An Old Plan, Revisited

The Corps had considered other alternatives before its 1996 levees plan. In 1984, the Corps had recommended the construction of a dry dam in the vicinity of Shoccoe, Miss., about nine miles east of Canton, as the most comprehensive flood-control option for the Pearl. A Corps report, dated March 17, 1986, said the total cost of the Shoccoe dam would be $80.1 million, with an estimated federal cost of $56 million and an estimated non-federal cost of $24 million. In November 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Water Resources Development Act, which included authorization for the Shoccoe Dry Dam.

The project called for the combined construction of a roadway crossing the Pearl River and a floodwater detention and storage facility in east central Leake County, as well as a levee system in the south part of Carthage, which would extend a levee system on the south side of Highway 16, in Leake County. The project would also include drainage structures and bridge modifications to expand storm water conduits under Mississippi highway 35, south of Carthage, to reduce backwater influences for areas upstream of the highway. An early Corps feasibility study warned that other structures "may be necessary to alleviate unforeseen flooding" in the Leake County area as a result of the construction of Shoccoe Dry Dam, as well as unaddressed costs of channel improvements on the upstream river.

The price tag for Shoccoe, while incomplete, was still considerably less than the cost of levee expansion in downstream Jackson, and a monumental cost difference compared to impounding the Pearl. But the Corps discovered the project was "unimplementable from a local interest standpoint," due to opposition from upstream and downstream interest groups--including Two Lakes advocates and environmentalists they love to hate.

Mississippi Sierra Club Director Louie Miller was a particularly noisy opponent of the idea. "The proposal was all about moving Jackson's flooding problem 30 miles north of Jackson, but the dam was never going to alleviate flooding in Jackson. It would only protect about 8 percent of the structures that flooded in Jackson. Instead of having eight feet of water in their house, they would only have about three or four feet of water in their house. The whole thing was a crock from the beginning," said Miller, who entered the drama surrounding Shoccoe in 1986 as a blueberry farmer with his own self-interest: his fields, near Carthage, were destined to go underwater under the plan.

"The whole plan was also prohibitively expensive and would not pass cost-benefit ratio. The Corps did what the Corps normally does: Whatever they say it costs, double it and cut in half whatever benefits they're trying to sell you," Miller added.

Corps information reveals that the Shoccoe operation did contain numerous costs unbound by the original $81 million price tag. The dry dam project requires the construction of a combination earth and mechanical embankment that would only close its gates and act like a dam at the onset of floodwater barreling down from the Pearl River's northern territory, creating a temporary shallow lake.

The natural design of the countryside complicated the project, however. The lowland character of the majority of land in Mississippi makes it comparable to the swampy plain of Louisiana. This overall flatness of the Pearl River Basin explains the overly winding pattern of the Pearl River, and just as equally explains the snaky curves of the Mississippi River. That unimaginative flatness, while great for growing cypress trees, means any dam engineer looking to build in the area must devise a plan that devours huge swathes of acreage in order to contain volume. Shoccoe was no exception: The lake, when expanded to its full 58,000-acre potential during a flood, would create a liquid monstrosity 1.5 times the size of the Barnett Reservoir, however temporary.

The Corps would have to relocate at least 10 miles of the Natchez Trace parkway, according to critics, which otherwise would be periodically inundated. Highway 25 would also need a six-mile bridge, because part of the structure would be underwater when the dam was activated. The Corps never completed the final feasibility report on Shoccoe, so critics and Corps alike never got the chance to fully agree upon the additional cost of moving the roadways. Some estimates predicted at least an extra $24 million.

To make matters worse, the Corps demanded stiff requirements from people residing in the substantial territory of the temporary lake, and the subsequent demands of affected residents hiked costs significantly.

"The Corps said, 'We'll pay you 20 cents on the dollar for a flood easement, but in the meantime, any structures on your property for human habitation would have to be removed at your expense,'" Miller said. "Anybody versed in eminent-domain proceedings said they're taking away the economic value of your property. Your property can't be used for anything else but a flood pool. So they're going to have to buy the title to your property. That increased the price tag by about another $100 million."

Shoccoe also embodied many of the same environmental setbacks as McGowan's lakes plan--the ones the Sierra Club says will lock up Two Lakes in court for 50 years. The ringed sawback turtle and the yellow-blotched sawback turtle require long periods of sitting on logs, soaking up the sun's heat. Logs and bramble fit for holding a turtle don't come easily on the placid expanse of a lake surface, however, but going onshore to bask means being subject to predators in the area, like raccoons and wild dogs.

Opponents to the Shoccoe issue beat back the local cost share of the project. It's a tactic that would likely work just as well against the proposed levee system--but would also work against any attempt to create another Shoccoe-type project even further up the river. The area even higher up in the Pearl River's tributaries is just as flat, and would require a large amount of acreage to produce a retention lake workable for the city of Jackson. The same costs would remain an issue.

The Shoccoe Dam idea died in 1987, when the Mississippi Legislature voted down legislation authorizing the Pearl River Basin Development District to serve as the local sponsor for the project.

Move The Problem

Despite problems with both lakes and levees, any desperate grasp for a new Shoccoe or similar retention lake (or multiple retention lakes in different spots along the Pearl) will likely hit the same barriers that decapitated the last Shoccoe, according to legislators well-versed in attempts at flood control. The Mississippi Legislature refused to fund Shoccoe in the end, even with Shoccoe advocate Dick Hall acting as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and prominent developer Leland Speed (today an advocate of McGowan's lakes plan) offering to sell floodplain property to the Shoccoe endeavor.

Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, predicted that warring municipalities are unlikely to ever work together to fund any worthy flood-control project.

"Legislators tried to put flood control together in the 1990s when we tried to fund levees and Shoccoe, and I was astounded by how so many people could work together to kill something as useful as flood control," Denny told the Jackson Free Press last December. "We've got a dense population in Jackson staring flood damage comparable to 1979 right in the face, but then we got people out in the sticks fighting against flood control in Jackson just so they can protect the grazing pasture for a few cows. The whole thing made me sick to watch."

The Most Obvious Option

At least one other option exists, however controversial--one that is downright stupid in its simplicity, according to Larry Larson, executive director of the Association for State Floodplain Managers: Don't build, or buy, in the flood zone.

"The most desirable option for dealing with flood control is to avoid the high-risk area," Larson said. "If you have the lands available, you should develop where it makes the most sense, and last time I checked, Mississippi wasn't exactly short of space. You'll still have development, but it's becomes a question of where it makes the most sense. Put it in a high-risk area, and you've got a big loss. The community might have had a short-term gain on taxes but a big term loss on damages."

After billions of dollars of nationwide levee development, the idea of moving people out of flood zones, or acquisition relocation, is a relatively novel approach. In fact, the nation engaged in very little acquisition relocation until a spate of expensive floods in 1993.

The year 1992 was one of the most expensive years in the nation's history in terms of water damage. Flood and hurricane costs surpassed $30 billion, with 46 presidential-declared disasters in fiscal year 1992. The flood insurance claims for just three of the major events that year included $145 million for Hurricane Andrew's work in Florida and Louisiana and another $30 million for Hurricane Iniki's damage in Hawaii.

President Bill Clinton responded in 1993 by signing the Hazard Mitigation and Relocation Assistance Act, an amendment to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which assists states and local governments in implementing long-term hazard mitigation measures following a major disaster declaration. Sometimes that mitigation entails helping residents get away from their water problem once and for all by financing relocation efforts.

After the 1993 floods, FEMA focused on post-disaster acquisition and relocation, and since that time the agency has acquired and removed about 35,000 structures out of flood plains. The process is fairly simple, if daunting. After a community is flooded, FEMA and the local district compile applications for candidates for relocation for the state. Upon state approval, the home-owner qualifies to collect the full appraised value of their home, with 75 percent of cost sharing coming from the federal government and the state and flood control district covering the other 25 percent.

The program is voluntary, and not likely to be initially popular, but Jackson residents most affected by the potential rising waters of the Pearl have the most to gain in tax savings, as does the federal government, which spends huge amounts of money through the National Flood Insurance Program to insure flood-prone homes and businesses--for the same people it would help relocate.

The Harris County Flood Control District, of Texas, touts the success of its buyout program in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. An owner of a Harris County house that had four claims under the National Flood Insurance Program totaling $232,000, sold his home through a buy-out program for a total cost of $191,000, including the $160,000 acquisition cost and an additional $31,000 in discretionary costs. FEMA calculated the total avoided damages from repeated flood insurance coverage of the home to be $589,000.

"Our position is that the beauty of picking structures out of high-risk areas is you have no ongoing high maintenance costs," Larson said. "It's not like a levee, which you have to operate and maintain continuously. The problem with levees right now is that now we have to go back and look at them, and we're finding more and more that they're not adequate. Many communities have not maintained their levees, so FEMA says it's not adequate unless you bring it up to speed, and we can't count it as protection, so we'll have to map the area behind the levee as floodplain."

The Rankin-Hinds Levee Board is up against its own certification issues regarding the levees. FEMA announced in 2007 that it would be modernizing flood maps around the city of Jackson. If FEMA does not certify the levees, the new flood map will reflect the inundation of the massive 1979 flood, placing into flood zones many houses that had never flooded prior to the 1979 inundation, and raising the price of home insurance of the affected homes. It could even prevent home insurance coverage in some locations.

The city asked the Corps to inspect the levees in an effort to facilitate a decision. The agency will issue an analysis of the levees this year, which will affect FEMA's decision to either certify or de-certify the levees.

A Little Bit of Both

The Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District would likely be the local district responsible for orchestrating buy-out or home-relocation applications with the state and federal government. The District's contribution to the 25 percent investment in the buy-out would still have to be financed through some form of district expansion, similar in scope to the expansion required to fund either a $206 million levee project or a $1.4 billion lake project. The buy-out program could be the least expensive plan, although the Levee Board has not yet completed a feasibility study on the estimated price of a full-scale acquisition relocation effort.

Levee Board member Mark Scarborough, mayor of Richland, said a complete buy-out would be too expensive, even with the federal government's 75 percent contribution.

"We've taken some of the costs associated with the levee system, and it all still comes down to cost," Scarborough said. "We've considered buy-out options, but they'd still exceed the $206 million cost of the levee."

The Levee Board would not likely support a wholesale buy-out due to the impracticality of relocating important downtown businesses and government buildings. The city's emergency center of operations on Gallatin Street, for example, took on water in 1979 and had to be moved to higher ground. Rather than a complete buy-out option, local taxpayers could consider a combination of more modestly expanded levees with some home buy-outs along the more vulnerable areas.

Jackson leaders, after all, have busily approved considerable development in flood-prone areas, even following the 1979 disaster when it seemed remarkable to build in some of those areas. Combination efforts can work, however. Larson pointed to an example in Napa Valley, Calif., saying the city and district could make do with a mixture of smaller, cheaper levees and some relocation efforts.

"They got flooded regularly in downtown Napa, so the Corps said, 'we'll build a big-ass levee right on the back of the river.' They went to Congress, and they put the money in the budget, but then the community rose up and said they didn't want that because they wanted to relate to the river, not be cut off from it. They ended up building the levee, but they moved it back some blocks from the river. Yes, some people did have to move back from the river, but they got to set back the levees, which made them smaller and less costly. Then they kept the wetlands open, which helped store water in future floods."

Byram resident Tom Pullen, a former biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, says the 1996 levee plan bottlenecks the river in every spot save the area encompassing the Jackson fairgrounds. Under the 1996 plan, levees beat through both parks and backyards, cutting residents out of their homes, business owners out of their offices and some wetlands away from the river, producing stagnant water and even more stagnant attitudes.

"I would like to see the levee a little further back from the river," Pullen said. "The way it is now, it cuts off some wetland areas and squeezes the river so that it has to deliver a high volume of water through two very high levees at times of flood."

Monticello Mayor Dave Nichols expressed concern that the pinched river would deliver a bigger payload of floodwater down to the shores of his town at a faster pace, possibly increasing the threat of erosion.

Larson argues that a modified levee plan set further away from the river, along with voluntary removal of the more vulnerable residents in North Jackson and other spots outside the downtown area, could allow for smaller levees. The further you set your levees from the river, after all, the higher the land gets, and the freedom of the water to spread out in the reclaimed wetland areas north of the city means less pressure on existing levees.

Scarborough said the Levee Board hopes to cut as much cost as possible and would consider combination designs potentially reducing the size of the levees. "Before everything's finalized, we'll look at every conceivable possibility, and one could include a combination of buy-outs and other things," Scarborough said.

Larson said Jackson need to move quickly. The development of more and more watersheds over recent decades helps produce ever-bigger floods because of expanding impervious surfaces and more water run-off. And storms are getting more intense. "The sad fact is Jackson will probably be one of the cities recalculating its own estimates again soon. It's probably not a matter of 'if' anymore."

Related Story: The Problems with Lakes and Levees

For the JFP's full coverage of Two Lakes and Levees, visit The Pearl River Archive.

Previous Comments


Jackson proper has to do something to give people a reason to visit, and an incentive for businesses to hold conventions here. At least the two lakes plan would give Jackson something unique and different. Two Lakes sure seems like a lot of pork if the goal is simply flood control...but the idea of devoloping the river front near downtown (lake or not) is a good one.

The Eskimo

but the idea of devoloping the river front near downtown (lake or not) is a good one. Agreed. That's where eco-devo efforts should be going at this point, and with a plan that can happen in our lifetimes and cost less than billion dollars. There are also very real questions about what the economic impact of the Two lakes plan would actually be and which side of the river would end up benefitting more.


I've been thinking about this a lot, after I really came to terms with the facts of how much of downtown Jackson, including the 14 story building I work in, were flooded in 1979 and exist in the flood plain. Moving everyone out doesn't seem feasible to me as far as the life of the city. What about spending real money to "water proof" and/or "weather proof" the 1st and 2nd floors of all buildings in the flood plain. Someone told me they did this on the coast as casinos rebuilt - all the first floor basic structural parts of the building were designed to withstand water and wind. I'm thinking a similar approach may work here in Jackson. We know the river will flood, rather than trying to keep everyone dry, why not invest in structures that can handle water every 40 - 100 years. It would be cheaper to redo sheetrock and paint, I think, in the long run the river needs to do this to maintain the balance of the ecosystem as well, Any levees and dams create problems up or downstream.



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