Threat: Proposed New Dams
The Pascagoula River is a free-flowing treasure that runs through the Gulf Coastal plain in the southeastern United States. The river and its associated marshes and wetlands are a haven for fish, wildlife, and visitors looking to experience the area’s unique natural beauty. All of this could be irreversibly damaged if local counties are successful in their effort to build new dams on Pascagoula tributaries.
Running through the Gulf Coastal plain in southeastern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama, the Pascagoula River is the largest undammed river (by volume) in the continental United States. A state scenic stream, the Pascagoula River has historically been called the “Singing River,” due to the notable humming sound that arises from its waters. The Pascagoula watershed is largely forested, and its streams provide habitat for rare and valuable plants and animals from the headwaters to the tidally-influenced marshes downstream. This watershed is home to resident and migratory birds, turtles, fish, snakes and a variety of other fish and wildlife.
More than 30,000 acres of the Pascagoula’s streamside forests and hardwood swamps are protected by the Upper and Lower Pascagoula, Red Creek, and Ward Bayou Wildlife Management Areas, and The Nature Conservancy’s Murrah, Deaton and Leaf River Preserves. These various state federal and private lands managed for recreation or conservation are used by local hunters, fishermen, paddlers, birdwatchers and visitors from other states.
Two recreational amenity lakes have been proposed on tributaries to the Pascagoula River (Big Cedar Creek and Little Cedar Creek) by the Pat Harrison Waterway District, Jackson County Board of Supervisors and George County Board of Supervisors.
These groups claim that the lakes will protect the Pascagoula from climate change and severe drought. However, these claims have not been substantiated by the project proponents; future drought projections are uncertain.
While research predicts that there may be longer droughts and higher temperatures in this region between now and 2060 (the modeled time period), there also may be more floods, increased rainfall and more flashiness in the streams of the Pascagoula Basin. Future climate could be wetter or drier.
There is an existing, less environmentally harmful option for augmentation of low flows in the Pascagoula River — water releases from Okatibbee Reservoir in Lauderdale County and from other smaller lakes in the Pascagoula basin. Also, opportunities for water conservation should be exhausted before asking for a new water storage source such as lakes that will destroy wetlands, submerge farmland and habitat and displace people.
Furthermore, the storage function of the lakes is in question given the widely accepted concept that lake surfaces exposed to wind and sunlight will evaporate much more water than the surfaces of creeks. Consequently, the lakes will be of little use to the Pascagoula River during severe drought. In addition, researchers have determined that soils in this area allow significant seepage. Digging the lakes may drop the local water table and force users of shallow wells to deepen them or connect to community water systems. In fact, Curt Craig, the lead engineer for this project, admitted under oath that much more data was needed on soil characteristics before work could begin on the lakes.
In November 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote a letter to the Army Corps explaining that they consider the Pascagoula River to be “a resource of national importance.” EPA advised that the lake project is not necessary for drought resiliency and that it will have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on Big and Little Cedar Creeks and downstream waters. Then in January 2016, due to political pressure from constituents, the Jackson County Board of Supervisors voted to remove support from the Cedar Creek dam projects and the Army Corps’ Mobile District was informed that the county no longer co-sponsors this wetland fill application.
What Must Be Done
The Army Corps should reject the permit applications for these avoidable and environmentally harmful dams to create luxury lake communities. However, in the event that the Cedar Creek lake construction project is allowed to move forward, the Army Corps must require the applicants to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Project proponents have previously submitted an environmental assessment to the Army Corps. However, when proposed actions are those “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” the National Environmental Policy Act requires that a full EIS be prepared. This project’s effects on habitat, wetlands, local geology, residential water wells, plus the shrinking of floodplains and placement of high hazard dams upstream of occupied structures all support the finding of a significant effect on the quality of the human environment and require an EIS.