The Problem With Lakes and Levees


Front from left: Pearl Mayor Brad Rogers and Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. listened last September to the Corps' announcement that it will not recommend a lake plan for flood control along the Pearl River.

When famed New Urbanist Andre Duany came to Jackson to examine creative solutions to both flooding and economic-development options, he didn't get excited about the Two Lakes development plan developed by geologist and oilman John McGowan.

In fact, Duany threw the cold water of reality on what McGowan calls his "dream," saying he likes projects that can actually be completed in his lifetime.

That sentiment sums up most objective attitudes toward Two Lakes: It sounds great, but is unlikely to ever happen..
Even though the Levee Board officially rejected the plan in December by voting to pursue levees, Two Lakes proponents say they will continue to fight for the construction of a roughly 7,000-acre impoundment that developers promise will allay flooding, as well as create miles of top-priced waterfront property (and higher property taxes) for landowners in and near the Two Lakes footprint.

The Lakes plan's most lethal flaw is that $1 billion-plus price tag that could easily tack more than 10 mills in taxes upon all property within the range of the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District should locals vote to expand it. McGowan promises the price will be under $400 million and paid for by property taxes and bonds imposed locally. Many experts shake their heads at his low estimate, considering the immense environmental mitigation that the federal government would require, and the difficulty in raising that kind of money for possible economic development years down the road.

McGowan's dream also depends on the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District allowing more water to flow into the Ross Barnett Reservoir dam during floods. It's a shaky reliance, though, considering the mechanical limitations of the reservoir, which averages a depth of only 10 feet along most of its 30,000-acre surface area. The District would likely have to drop the level of the relatively low-volume lake below manageable levels in order to accommodate an incoming rush of water comparable to the 1979 Easter flood when the Pearl crested at 43.3 feet, 
6 feet above any previous crest.

The federal government is not likely to go along with the Two Lakes requirement for the reservoir to become a "flood control lake." A December 1979 report by the General Accounting Office report, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress, emphasizes that the reservoir "was designed essentially as a water supply and recreation facility" that can only offer flood help in dire emergencies.

McGowan's plan relies on using the reservoir continually for flood control, however. It would require dropping the reservoir at least a foot several times a year and four feet to catch overflow during floods.

Both the GAO and reservoir officials warn that is not realistic because the average depth is only about 10 feet. "The limitations of the reservoir haven't changed," Pearl River Valley Water Supply District General Manager Benny French said in January.

But Two Lakes of Mississippi Foundation reports make the rejection personal--directing ire at French and the reservoir district, as well as Corps officials, for not getting behind the plan to incorporate the reservoir into the Two Lakes strategy. The foundation maintains that the GAO findings against reservoir flood control are wrong.

The GAO reported that efforts to use the reservoir to offset overflow were not coordinated between agencies during the 1979 flood, adding to the flood's severity. "During severe flooding situations, the reservoir manager can minimize downstream flooding by storing water and controlling the reservoir's discharge rate. This function is limited, however, as the reservoir was not designed as a flood control project, and no procedures exist to guide flood mitigation efforts."

The GAO blamed the flood in part on the construction of the reservoir, along with a spate of over-confident building in flood-prone land, saying that too many people believed the myth that the reservoir could help significantly with flooding: "The project, according to a federally funded study, provided Jackson residents with a false sense of security concerning future flooding. Consequently, more and more people built their homes and businesses in the flood plain."

The Corps largely based its choice for levees and against lakes on the amount of environmental mitigation required of flooding a cypress-tree-laden wetland filed with flora and fauna that enjoy federal protection--
issues that create a sizable weapon in any environmentalist's legal arsenal to tie a lake project up in court for many years.

The Corps told the Levee Board that environmental mitigation issues represented so overwhelming a barrier in any flood-control plan that the agency could not support the lakes plan so long as any plan offering less environmental barriers presented itself.

... And With Levees

The fall of the lakes plan does not mean the Levee Board is thrilled with the levee plan. But it was time to stop wrangling over a plan unlikely to ever happen, some members say.

"We've been fighting over this for years, and we still don't have a means for flood control. It's time to do something. That river hasn't gotten any less prone to flood since 1979," Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads said.

Rep. Mary Coleman, D-Jackson, who sat in on the board's contentious 2009 vote to approve the Corps levees-only plan, not only wants the lakes plan, but says that Rankin County's dominant presence on the board is steering the preference toward levees. She submitted a legislative bill this year seeking to change the make-up of the board in favor of Hinds County and Two Lakes--a bill that died on the House calendar last week.

"You need to look at the amount of money that's been spent over the past few years, and we still don't have a plan," she said, echoing Rhoads' frustration, if not his argument. "Levees don't work. New Orleans is proof enough of that. Rankin County controls the board, but it was mostly Jackson that got flooded in 1979, not Rankin County."

Others, though, point out that the Corps' foot-dragging on levee improvement led to the severity of Katrina destruction in New Orleans. Sandy Rosenthal, founder and executive director of levees.org, says Katrina revealed decades of waning support for levee maintenance and upgrades--which came at a severe cost. "The failure of the federally engineered levees was 40 years in the making," Rosenthal stated. "The Army Corps squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on a levee system they knew by their own calculations was inadequate."

Rosenthal mocked Coleman's statement: "If you're going to say levees don't work, you might as well say elevators don't work, or bridges don't work."

Pitted against pretty Two Lakes renderings, demonizing the levees is not difficult, especially with businesses, residents and many officials complaining that it is the city of Jackson, not Rankin County, that must sacrifice the brunt of prime developed land in order to house the levees. The Jackson Free Press detailed arguments against levees last issue: They would require businesses to move out of the flood plain, and they are ugly.

The most passionate argument against them, however, seems to be that people aren't going to fund improved flood-control measures, unless they get some sort of economic-development lagniappe for their investment.

It may be dangerous thinking, but it makes the job of the Levee Board even more difficult. "Taxpayers need to have something to show for their investment," Rhoads said.

See the JFP's full Pearl River archive.


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