Final review of long-delayed One Lake project could begin this spring

Northeast Jackson residents survey their neighborhood one last time before leaving.
Northeast Jackson residents survey their neighborhood one last time before leaving.(WLBT)
Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 1:42 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - It’s been more than a decade since the concept of the One Lake flood control project was first introduced at a downtown Jackson gathering of architects, engineers, and urban planners in 2007.

Nearly 15 years and one major flood later, supporters and opponents of the project can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

In a matter of months, both sides should know whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will allow the project to move forward.

Local leaders are expected to submit a draft of the final environmental impact statement to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works this spring.

From there, the final review, public comment period, and revisions will take another six months. After that, the Secretary of the Army will either sign off on or deny the project.

“This is a long process. There isn’t a project like this around the country that doesn’t take years and years to get done,” said Keith Turner, attorney for the Rankin-Hinds Flood Control District, the local board that is sponsoring the project. “I know folks – the folks that are supporters – are frustrated that it’s taking so long. Our opposition, I know they’re probably happy it has taken so long.”

Keith Turner discusses the One Lake Project.
Keith Turner discusses the One Lake Project.(WLBT)

One Lake is a major flood control and economic development project that calls for creating a 1,500-acre lake on the Pearl River from north of Lakeland Drive to south of I-20.

The project, which would reduce flooding in the capital city by better moving water downstream, would have prevented nearly 200 homes and businesses from flooding during the 2020 Pearl River Flood.

As an added benefit, it would create hundreds of acres of new waterfront property for economic development and recreation.

However, opponents say the project should be stopped because of the “irrevocable and extensive damage” it would impose on the Pearl River ecosystem.

“Environmental costs include the destruction of almost 2,000 acres of wetlands that currently provide flood control and biodiversity, damage to critically endangered species habitat, including that of the Gulf sturgeon and the... ringed sawback turtle and Pearl River map turtle found nowhere else in the world,” said Abby Braman, with Pearl Riverkeeper, a local environmental advocacy group.

She went on to say that “the One Lake project combines questionable flood control benefits for some while increasing flood impacts along the city’s urban creeks, including Town and Lynch, all while imparting a high cost to taxpayers and disruptions to current roads/bridges, wastewater treatment, legacy landfills, and downstream communities.”

Turner counters that argument, saying the project does work and has the potential to save the city of Jackson billions of dollars over time.

“We had the 2020 flood, but over the past five years prior to that, we came close to worse floods than that. It was in 2014... we had really high water and were at flood stage already,” Turner said. “We had an enormous rain event coming our way and eight to 10 inches was predicted. If that water fell... it would have been worse than 79,” he said. “The rain cloud came across Louisiana, into Mississippi, and then it split, so it was not nearly as huge...”

“The same thing happened in 2016. We had a high river already... rain was coming across and it split again,” he said. “That’s not something we should be living with.”

Jackson Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote agrees. Foote represents much of Northeast Jackson, which was hit hard by the 2020 flood.

“Obviously, when you have that type of event, you have people who decide they don’t want to reside in areas that are most flood-prone, and those areas end up being rental properties,” he said. “One Lake would resolve a lot of those issues and make a lot of neighborhoods near the Pearl River much safer.”

In 2020, the Pearl River rose to 36.67 feet, more than 8 feet above flood stage.

It impacted numerous homes and properties along North Canton Club Circle, River Road, Deer Trail, Westbrook Road, and others. Many of the ball fields and athletic facilities at Jackson Academy also were inundated.

This map shows the homes that were flooded on the left and the homes that would have been...
This map shows the homes that were flooded on the left and the homes that would have been flooded had One Lake been in place.(Keith Turner)

He said better flood protection also could reduce flood insurance premiums for those residents.

“You can pay thousands of dollars for insurance,” Turner said. “These people that live in areas that flood right now, you can’t get a mortgage without getting your flood insurance taken care of.”

As for the environmental concerns, the river is home to the Pearl River map turtle and the Ringed sawback turtle. Ringed sawback turtles are currently classified as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The map turtle could soon be joining the sawback turtle on that list. Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed adding the map turtle to its threatened species list.

According to a release from the agency, there are only an estimated 21,000 map turtles remaining in the wild, and “those individuals (are) threatened with turtle harvesting, as well as habitat loss and degradation due to the effects of sea-level rise, flooding, and drought.”

Turner said steps are being taken to mitigate any impacts the project has on species in the area and pointed to the fact that much of One Lake will be located along a portion of the Pearl that has been previously channelized.

“We’re talking about a stretch of river... 80 percent of this project is in a stretch of the river that is basically channelized,” he said. “There are no trees hanging over it, it’s not beautiful. It’s a big ditch.”

He said the project, meanwhile, will actually help the turtle population. “First of all, we’re going to move all those turtles... to better places, better parts of the river. Genetically, that’s actually good, because the southern turtles south of the Reservoir are isolated from the turtles north of the Reservoir. And they tell me that a mixture of those genes would actually be healthy for the species.”

“In the project area itself, there will be habitats... We (will) have some islands that... are going to be off-limits to human beings. Those are going to be natural preserve areas sandbars and things to where various species of turtles will be able to have their habitats.”

The project has also been opposed by some cities downstream for the potential impact the lake could have on river flow. To construct the lake, a new weir would be constructed near I-20.

One Lake supporters say the lake would not reduce flow, pointing to the fact that the Ross Barnett Reservoir has actually increased flow downstream.

Whether those environmental concerns will impact the assistant secretary’s approval of One Lake remain to be seen. The final approval belongs to the assistant secretary.

A draft environmental impact study was submitted to the secretary more than a year and a half ago. Since then, engineers have been working to address comments and concerns the secretary has brought up.

“Their team was put together and they conducted a review of that document and came back with a bunch of comments... We have been responding to those comments – editing and revising the document to reflect those comments,” Turner said.

“We’ve done that twice now, and now we’re editing on the second round,” he said. “I think we’re fairly close, if not pretty much done with them. Then, we have to submit it back up.”

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