Swamp Fight: Louisiana and Mississippi forces battle over flood protection

Published: Nov. 14, 2013 at 8:02 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 10, 2014 at 1:02 AM CST
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A alligator in the Honey Island Swamp near Slidell (John Snell)
A alligator in the Honey Island Swamp near Slidell (John Snell)

SLIDELL, La. - When Mark and Sue Nelson of Vancouver, Canada visited recently, they wanted to experience a slice of life outside the big city.

"This is our last full day in New Orleans and we wanted to see something authentic," said Sue of the swamp boat tour they took into the Honey Island Swamp.

Each year, thousands of tourists take a once-in-a-lifetime trip where the swamp people live amongst 12-foot alligators, and coincidentally, nature's best hurricane protection.

The Pearl River meanders through Honey Island, providing just enough fresh water to flood the forest and create a 30,000-plus acre natural treasure.

Tour boat operator Paul Trahan remembers his first trip into Honey Island after Hurricane Katrina when he found, "almost no noticeable difference from day to day, what happened to the swamp."

A couple hundred miles upriver, another city struggles against its own flood threat.

In the great flood of 1979, the Pearl spilled over its backs in Jackson, Miss., flooding parts of downtown, submerging Interstate 55 and causing an estimated $1.6 billion in damages in 2013 dollars.

Jackson flooded again in 1983 and has suffered several near misses since.

"We've got to do something," said Dallas Quinn of Pearl River Vision, a business-oriented group pushing for a solution to Jackson's flood threat.

That something could include levees, buyouts, or a brand new body of water.

The Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District (RHPRFDCD) is considering widening the river, installing a dam-like structure and creating lake a couple thousand feet wide by nine miles long northeast of downtown Jackson.

"It's an absolutely a tragedy to come in, block a river off, stop the flow, drop a river," said Trahan, whose family runs Dr. Wagner's Honey Island Swamp Tour.

Critics fear less water moving downstream, too much salt damaging oyster beds, and salt pushing up the river itself.

"You're talking about all the trees immediately on a death bed," Trahan said.

At meeting last month in Picayune to determine the scope of a required environmental impact statement, a small, but vocal group of potential opponents raised objections to the lake concept.

"Unless you can show us, drafted into your study area that you've done your homework, then we're not okay with this," local resident Janice O'Berry warned a consulting engineer for the flood district.

"If we, the general public of St. Tammany, cannot dredge it, cannot touch it, cannot alter it, not even one percent, then they shouldn't be allowed to either," O'Berry said.

Despite the ongoing threat, the metro Jackson area has struggled for decades to agree on a solution.

A plan several years ago for a two-lake concept drew early objections from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which effectively short circuited a study before it was completed.

"Flood protection is an important part of having a community," said Keith Turner, an attorney for the RHPRFDCD. "That's really a driving force."

Skeptics believe the flood district is downplaying the true motive.

"I think it's purely the agenda of somebody trying to make a dollar off waterfront property," Trahan said.

Turner concedes the perception exists, but insists, "it's got to be a flood control project first and foremost.  That is the important thing."

Suspicions down river are heightened because of the decades-long struggle between Mississippi and Louisiana over the Pearl River's flow.

North of Jackson, the giant Ross Barnett Reservoir covers 33-thousand acres, providing a key source of drinking water to the region.

However, Louisiana environmentalists have long complained the reservoir and its large dam frequently alter the river's flow, sometimes rationing water, while other times sending unwanted pulses downstream.

"It just seems to be backward thinking to be building dams on big rivers, big important rivers," said Andrew, water program director for the Gulf Restoration Network.

The flood protection district insists the lake concept represents merely one alternative, and on a scale much smaller than Ross Barnett.

Seven miles downstream from the reservoir, the lake alternative would measure 1,500 acres, and only about 3 to 5 percent of the reservoir's volume, according to consulting engineer Blake Mendrop.

"We know that's a very difficult and dynamic system and we don't want to impact that at all," Mendrop said.

The district also points out the Jackson wastewater treatment plant down river has a EPA permit, mandating they do nothing to lower the amount of water heading south.

Turner said the district would subject to minimum flow requirements as long as the Jackson wastewater treatment plant is there.

"It's been there since the 1960's," Turner said. "I don't think it's going anywhere soon."

Skeptics, concerned about unintended consequences, are pushing for a study encompassing the entire Pearl River system.

"Of course, there are not intended impacts," said Helen Ross Patterson of the Gulf Restoration Network. "But that doesn't mean that when they get to the end of this, there won't be impacts."

Flood district representatives counter they lack the authority to conduct a study outside their geographic base.  However, they promise the environmental impact statement due out next year will consider water quality and any other impacts downstream.

"We got that message loud and clear," Quinn said, "that flows should not be lowered downstream."

The EIS, conducted under the guidance of the Corps, is due out next year.

Turner said the district will settle on a "locally-preferred option" sometime in coming months.