PEER to Levee Board: Move Faster!


Levee Board members Gary Rhoads, Brad Rogers and Harvey Johnson Jr. sit in on a 2009 U.S. Army Corps of Engineer meeting.

The Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District's navel-gazing on flood control along the Pearl River this month drew fire from he Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review.

PEER announced in July that it would conduct a study of the Levee Board's nearly 50-year effort—the board has been in existence since 1962—to enact flood control along the unpredictable edge of the Pearl River.

Now, four months after state PEER Director Max K. Arinder announced the investigation—and decades of debate between board members over what kind of flood-control plan to adopt—the agency is telling the Levee Board to get a move on.

"Thirty-one years after the 1979 flood, governmental entities have not yet implemented a comprehensive flood-control plan for the Jackson metropolitan area," PEER stated in an Oct. 12 report. "... [O]nce the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers reconsiders the pending flood control proposals, the district must take the actions necessary to implement an acceptable plan and provide the citizens of the metropolitan area with a long-awaited flood-control program."

The Levee Board must work with the Corps of Engineers in a shared effort to select a plan and fund it, whether that plan is a simple expansion of the current inadequate levee system or a more robust combination of levees and a recreational lake. A third option the board discussed over the last few years includes an even bigger lake that would act as a flood retainer, potentially without the need of levees, but which could face considerable opposition from federal environmental laws.

The Corps prefers a levee expansion and deemed last year that any variation of a lake proposal would be unlikely to survive numerous environmental issues. In an effort to sway the Corps, the Levee Board recently approved a plan combining a levee expansion and a smaller lake that would not threaten the wetland area north of Lakeland Drive. The Levee Board also pressured the state's congressional delegation to push the Corps into including a lake plan in an upcoming flood-control feasibility study.

But the PEER report makes clear that while the Levee Board's more modest lake plan offers the advantage of new development and property taxes, "the time for study means further delay in the implementation of a flood control plan for the area." PEER added that even if the smaller lake plan makes it into the feasibility study, there is no guarantee from the Corps that it will "favorably report" on the lake's environmental impact.

PEER investigators took note of the most recent smaller lake plan—but also referenced three decades of delay and a total of five failed flood-control project attempts similar in scope to the smaller lake plan, and warned that time is running short on flood control.

"While PEER sees potential benefit in the development opportunities that a Lower Lake plan offers, the committee would note that the actions that would be necessary to implement the plan would take time and additional resources above what might be required to build a levee system such as that contemplated in the (Corps' endorsed) Comprehensive Levee Plan," the report states.

PEER also made note of the problematic cost of the most recent lake incarnation. PEER stated that it believed the bill for the entire project could run about $500 million, which would require increases in property taxes to fund the local share.

"Because the current language of WRDA of 2007 caps the federal financial participation (for the lake plan) at $135 million, the district would have to establish a plan for financing the local share of the project. PEER would assume that this would include the possible expansion of the district boundaries to include more territory in Rankin and Hinds counties that would be subject to ad valorem taxation to retire bonds, projections of private fees that could conceivably be utilized for land leases, and possible in-lieu payments from state sources for the added protection that a flood control plan could provide to the state fairgrounds," the report stated.

It then referenced the cost issues inherent in an even cheaper levee expansion attempted by the state Legislature in 1996, and pointed out that legislators were willing to let Jackson go underwater rather than fund the $38 million local share of a simple levee expansion.

"PEER suggests that these concerns might continue to have an impact on any proposal for levees or impoundments should any such plan require the adoption of amendments or revenue measures by the Mississippi Legislature," PEER stated. "Should the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District require any amendments to its enabling legislation making amendments to its authority, the same interests that successfully defeated the Comprehensive Levee Plan might again mobilize to influence flood control plans for the Jackson metropolitan area."

In addition, PEER recommended that the Levee Board submit an annual report to legislators, due Dec. 31.

Levee Board attorney Trudy Allen appears dubious of the PEER scrutiny and an April aborted an opinion request of the attorney general's office by the Mississippi Department of Archives as to whether the Levee Board should be designated as a state agency.

At Arinder's July announcement of the investigation, Allen warned board members to remain consistent with its earlier opinion that it should not be considered a state agency: "We want to maintain that we are not subject to the legislative budget, and we are not a state agency," Allen said.

Levee Board Chairman Billy Orr said the board had not met since PEER released its report, but said the report would undoubtedly be a topic of conversation when the board continued its meeting Oct. 27.

"I haven't gotten any opinion out of the members of the board yet, but we'll be talking about it," Orr said.


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