Threats, restoration and hope along the Pearl River

By: Andrew Whitehurst
The idea that the Pearl River needs restoration and not more disturbance is gaining traction with state agencies in Louisiana and Mississippi that are now discussing the decommissioning of the Pearl River Navigational Canal. The Pearl has the fourth-largest fresh water discharge in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, so it is very important to swamps and coastal wetlands in Louisiana and Mississippi. Compared to the river systems to the east, like the Pascagoula; and those to the west feeding Lake Pontchartrain, the Pearl River has suffered more disturbance and needs restoration.
The Pearl has seen many man-made changes since 1950. Gary Parker, of Bogalusa, has lived through them and keeps a running list. He is retired now, but this Pearl River enthusiast learned in his youth to navigate, fish and hunt along the lower river. Downstream of navigation locks near Bogalusa, Parker and others have watched a hazardous, mile-long log jam grow since Hurricane Isaac. Log jams have formed and have been removed over the years, but this one is now receiving some needed attention from state agencies. Since 1963, the river below Jackson, Mississippi has been at the mercy of the Ross Barnett Reservoir and the management of its dam floodgates. Reservoir outflow amplifies both annual low and high water periods downstream.
The Pearl is a "working" river basin with more than 100 permitted dischargers in Mississippi and Louisiana. Small businesses discharge a few thousand gallons of treated wastewater per day, while major industries and bigger cities individually can add between one and ten million gallons per day. Flow is a big deal in permits because there must be enough flowing water to dilute wastewater. The Walkiah Bluff diversion structure is meant to divide flow between the East and West Pearl channels. It can be hard to predict water movements due to flooding or storm surges because the Pearl's lower floodplain has been changed since the 1970s when Interstate 10 and Highway 59 changed flow patterns with roadways elevated above swamp level and acting like dams.

A new dam and lake project proposed for the urban section of the Pearl River in Jackson, Mississippi won’t ease water quantity issues downstream. Plans for this "One Lake" project for flood control and riverfront development should be published for comment this fall by the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District. Promoters are selling the idea that a lake can provide both flood control and riverfront business development. The project needs a close examination by those living downstream who have seen the worst of nearly 70 years of change.
The Pearl has long provided quality habitats for wildlife and fish, but Parker says ecological changes and invasive species are stressing the river and its wetlands. He cites the explosion of the feral hog population and their constant rooting that wrecks vegetation along stream banks, disturbs soil and adds to erosion and sediment problems. “Our native wildlife and fish are suffering the effects,” says Parker.
Hurricanes flatten swamps; saltwater intrusion changes swamp to marsh, amplified flooding carries more plastic and household trash downstream. “It seems to be increasing every day,” Parker says; “At this pace, the basin cannot and will not survive.” With Mississippi pouring millions of dollars into marsh and oyster restoration at the mouth of the east Pearl, he asks: “How will that survive without a healthy river system upstream of it?” Restoration of the Pearl and the coastal wetlands in both states is less likely to succeed if another dam and lake are built near Jackson and adversely affect basic flow.
“The Pearl River is crying out for help,” Parker says, and until now not enough people have been listening; but there is hope for change. On Saturday, Sept. 23, the Pearl River Clean Sweep will be the first trash cleanup attempted over the river’s full 490 miles from its headwaters near Philadelphia, Mississippi to the mouth at Lake Borgne. The Pearl’s Riverkeeper, Abby Braman, is coordinating this event. State Rep. Malinda Brumfield White, of Bogalusa, has been very supportive of the Pearl Clean Sweep and Abby’s efforts. To learn more or volunteer, visit Gary Parker, Abby, and many volunteers will be in boats removing trash and making a statement that this September, there is a new outlook for this river.

Andrew Whitehurst is water program director for Gulf Restoration Network and focuses on Mississippi water and wetland issues.


Automation to Deliver Sea Change in Cargo Transport

Automation and transportation have come together in the air in the form of drones.  On land, many tech companies and automakers are working on self-driving cars.  Although we don’t hear quite as much about is the application of the technology to transport over water, we may see it become a reality within just a few years.

Back in 2014, Rolls Royce presented its concept for an autonomous ship.  The BBC report quoted Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce's vice president of innovation, engineering and technology, "Now it is time to consider a road map to unmanned vessels of various types. Sometimes what was unthinkable yesterday is tomorrow's reality.”

However, the law had not yet caught up to that reality. Simon Bennett, a representative of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), ascertained that international law still did not allow for crewless ships. He told the BBC that a legal change "would require a complete overhaul of the regulatory regime.”

There are those working on achieving that change. The BBC report referred to an EU-funded project working toward ships that could function without crews. Called Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence (MUNIN). In addition to making it technically feasible, MUNIN aims to work out the necessary changes in legislation to allow autonomous ships to function.

It envisions “highly advanced navigation systems” that would analyze conditions toavert accidents. As in the case of some of these sensor systems engineered to enable autonomous functions in cars, the plan is to apply the technology even for ships that are driven by people, as they could “support the officer of the watch.” That in itself could prove very valuable in light of the “human error” blamed for the recent collision of the USS Fitzgerald and a container ship.

After working at it for three years, they may have achieved some movement on the legal end. Among the items on the agenda for the 98th session of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC)  this past June was: “Scoping exercise proposed on autonomous vessels.” That was described as: “The MSC will be invited to consider proposals for the Committee to undertake a regulatory scoping exercise to determine how the safe, secure and environmentally sound operation of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) may be introduced in IMO instruments.”

Progress can be slow, but at least the ball is starting to roll toward reshaping shipping regulations to allow the legal reality to catch up with the technological reality.

Though no autonomous ships are carrying cargo yet, Rolls Royce’s Levander asserted at the beginning of this year, “ we expect fully autonomous oceangoing cargo ships to be routinely plying the world’s seas in 10 or 15 years’ time.”  In support of that view, Rolls Royce created this video that imagines the short control of the future.

In fact, that vision may even occur within the decade, according to BHP one of the largest dry bulk charterers in the world. At the end of May, it described its vision for a “safer, greener and leaner” freight approach. Automation is part of that equation, according to BHP:
Building on automation and remote-operation changes in our land-based supply chain, autonomous vessels offer significant opportunities to improve safety (removing people from dangerous tasks and more data-driven decision-making) and provide better efficiency outcomes to the marine supply chain. Safe and efficient autonomous vessels carrying BHP cargo, powered by BHP gas, is our vision for the future of dry bulk shipping. We believe that future could manifest within a decade.
Should the autonomous ships come to fruition, the savings on logistical costs would be enormous. Bloomberg estimates as much as “$86 billion a year” for the larger iron mine players. But even for smaller players, crewless ships offer the same promise of greater efficiency that other automated technologies contribute to processes and transport.

Undoubtedly, automated ships can bring about a sea-change in the logistical side of the electronic supply chain. And with the support of legislative change, as well as major players, that change may arrive within the next ten years.