Flooding from the Pearl River in Mississippi has created a renewed sense of urgency for regional flood prevention efforts, with officials set to decide in six months whether to approve a controversial flood control plan, says an attorney for the region’s flood control district.

At issue is the $345-million One Lake plan to build a dam on the Pearl River in Jackson, which would create a 1,500-acre lake to prevent river flooding in the region. The approach would also widen the river and make way for commercial development.

Key to the project moving forward is approval of a nearly 4,000-page draft feasibility and environmental impact statement that the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for review about 10 days before the river crested on Feb. 17.

The Corps’ Vicksburg District office is facilitating the technical review of the draft feasibility and environmental impact statement.

“It’s being reviewed by centers of expertise throughout the Corps at this point,” says Reagan Lauritzen, spokeswoman for the Corps in Vicksburg. Centers of expertise are Corps organizations designated as top experts in specific subject areas.

After the technical review is complete, then the flood control district will review the Corps’ comments and then decide whether to submit a revised statement to the Corps’ Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works for review at the national level.

Keith Turner, the flood control district's attorney, says Congress has directed the Corps to expedite its work but it could take until summer for the agency and the regional levee board to complete reviews to finalize the plan.

“The Corps has promised us they’re going to move quickly. I say six months, but it may happen sooner than that,” Turner says.

The One Lake project would better enable water to move through the Jackson area without causing flooding downstream and could lower flood stages from 2 to 8 feet, he says.

If the plan is approved, the district would still need to arrange financing and it is analyzing several funding mechanisms.

Turner says the plan has received authorization for funding from the federal Water Resources Development Act, but it has no federal appropriation. The project is also pursuing state funding, and the flood control district has bonding authority.

The Pearl River crested at about 36.8 feet on Feb. 17, according to the National Weather Service, the third-highest crest on record. Hundreds of Jackson-area homes flooded, but officials were bracing for much worse.

As of Feb. 18, 19 counties had submitted damage reports to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

According to its preliminary reports, 11 counties experienced flooding damages, including more than 300 homes that were either damaged or affected. There were also four injuries due to hydroplaning in Grenada County, and a levee breach in Leake County. Official county damage assessments will take place after the water recedes.

The Pearl River stood at 36.17 ft on Feb. 18 and is not set to drop below 33 ft until Feb. 21, according to the National Weather Service.

But Turner points out that just because the river has crested doesn’t mean the year’s flood risks are over.

“We’re coming into our wettest period of time. We’re going to have a very saturated river basin,” he says. “And what worries me is that this may not be the worst of what we’re seeing between now and April.”

Although leadership in the Pearl River region has generally supported the One Lake plan, the proposal has received bipartisan blowback over the years from lawmakers downstream in Louisiana, as well as opposition from environmental groups—with both arguing that river dredging and dambuilding could damage the ecosystem and stifle the local seafood industry as well as businesses that rely on fresh water flow.

Turner says flood control district officials are heeding these concerns. He cites a 2019 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that concluded the project would not harm water quality or quantity downstream.

In 2018, the Mississippi Dept. of Transportation voiced concerns that dredging could weaken the foundation of nine bridges along the Pearl River.

An MDOT spokesman said Feb. 18 that the department is continuing to evaluate effects the plan would have on the bridges and has requested  more detail from the developer.

Turner says district engineers have been working with MDOT and that the project budget will be sufficient to protect the bridges in question.