Jackson’s “One Lake” project: Pearl River flow and nutrient pollution problems

Picayune Item Staff Report:

There is a pending permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dam the Pearl River and build a 1,500 acre lake in the Jackson, Mississippi metro-area. The proposed “One Lake” project is moving rapidly and begs for close scrutiny from all interests that rely on the Pearl River to safely and legally discharge their regulated wastewater.   
In Mississippi alone, 98 industries, businesses and municipalities have wastewater discharge permits affecting the Pearl River and its tributaries. Twenty municipal sewage plants depend on the Pearl River in Mississippi. Jackson, West Rankin, Picayune, Poplarville and Columbia are capable of a combined discharge of 92.5 million gallons per day of treated sewage. Terry, Byram, Mendenhall, New Hebron and Monticello, combined, can add another 1.5 million gallons per day. 
In Louisiana there are dozens of permit holders in Washington and St. Tammany Parishes, including Bogalusa International Paper mill, and the towns of Bogalusa, and Pearl River. They all need stable flows and adequate dilution on the Pearl and its tributaries.
The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) issues permits requiring permit holders to treat their wastewater before releasing it into the Pearl or a tributary. Because there are other sources of wastewater going into the Pearl, like runoff from parking lots, farms and septic systems, the Pearl River is on the MDEQ Impaired Waters List. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus is ending up in the Pearl, so limits on the amount of these pollutants put into the Pearl have been written into permits held by industry, business and municipalities.  Too much of nitrogen and phosphorus compounds cause excess algae and plankton to grow, and too much algae and plankton choke the life out of a river.  Abundant algae and plankton growth, plus high summer temperatures rob the water of oxygen and can cause fish kills.  Permit limits for nitrogen and phosphorus manage this risk to public health and the environment, but they also add costs to permit holders, which are passed on to customers and taxpayers.
There must also be adequate water in a receiving stream to mix with and dilute the wastewater. Pollutant limits are important, but so is the flow of the river where the waste mixture is being released.  Permit holders run into problems when stream flows are reduced and proper waste dilution isn’t possible.  Reduced flows in our rivers happen each summer and fall when rainfall amounts are seasonally low. But there are other threats to flow, like the kind of dam being proposed for the Pearl.  Dams threaten to limit flow, and limiting flow makes it tough to comply with wastewater discharge permits. The Pearl River is under such a threat now.
On top of limiting flow with a dam, the surface area of an impounded lake evaporates much more water than the surface of a flowing river. More evaporation can affect flow and the dilution of pollutants. In 2013, the St. Tammany Parish engineering department examined evaporation predictions for this 1,500 acre lake project and calculated a possible reduction of 90 cubic feet per second of flow at their end of the Pearl River. That kind of reduction can have a significant impact on permits, and on the health of the river downstream.
With water being evaporated now off of the Barnett Reservoir, and more evaporative loss from the surface of a second lake, the permit holders downstream should consider how a new lake will affect them.
The “One Lake” sponsors claim that harmful changes to flow from a new lake and dam won’t hurt downstream interests on the Pearl.  But once 1,500 acres are dredged, dammed and developed, it will be too late. The Drainage District sponsoring the project received permission from Congress to self-fund the required studies and environmental impact statements. This “self- funding” involved state money:  the Mississippi Development Authority provided a $1 million Industry Incentive grant in 2013.   Downstream permit holders must do their homework and closely examine the draft Environmental Impact Statement and feasibility studies that are expected to come out in the next few weeks. More changes in Pearl River flow will make complying with permit limits more difficult and more expensive. The Pearl River needs restoration, not more dams.
By Andrew E. Whitehurst
Water Program Director
Gulf Restoration Network
Reprinted with permission from the Picayune Item


I want to say one word to you.

In the movie The Graduate, a young Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin, a recent college grad wondering what to make of his life. He’s approached by Mr. McGuire, a friend of his parents:
McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

I have similar, one-word advice for water resources specialists: Systems.

Perhaps you’re as confused as Benjamin, or maybe it’s old news. I find that most practitioners fail to comprehend how important systems thinking is to good water resources management, good policy, good everything. A lack of systems thinking produces unanticipated problems in every field. Systems thinking prevents many problems.

The standard definition is that systems thinking is holistic – it considers not just the component of interest but also the linkages and interactions of all the other components affected by and affecting that component. It recognizes the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

That’s too dry to be meaningful, so here’s an example: A dam on a river pools water upstream, flattening the slope and slowing the flow. The flow rates also change downstream, reducing some flows and increasing others, depending on the dam’s operational rules. Sediment deposits in the upstream pool and erodes downstream of the dam, changing the river bed and water surface profile. Those changes propagate upstream and downstream great distances, altering river hydraulics far from the site. Water temperature, residence time, evaporation, and reaeration rates change as the flow is slowed and stored, sometimes changing water quality.  Groundwater rises or falls depending on demand vs supply. Some aquatic species prefer impounded water, others can’t handle it, so the biological community changes. Lakeside properties become desirable home sites, so septic systems, fertilizer and pesticide runoff increase. Construction site erosion contributes faster runoff and more sediment. Increased population increases needed water, highway, school, and other government services, so tax revenue must rise. The effects, both favorable and unfavorable, spread farther and farther from the dam, affecting the physical, biological, economics, and social fabric of an entire region.

A transportation example: The U.S. manages transportation by looking only at one mode at a time instead of a system for moving people and goods. Each mode – highway, railway, airline, waterway and pipeline – has a separate set of practitioners and advocates when they should be viewed as an integrated system of balanced choices. With few exceptions, mass transit is managed as a competitor to personal vehicles instead of a complimentary component of a single system. Politicians rant about subsidizing Amtrak while happily supporting massive subsidies for highways, which encourage urban sprawl, requiring still more highways.

The Corps of Engineers has attempted to address systems effects in water resources with programs like Regional Sediment Management and Engineering with Nature. EPA has long advocated a watershed approach to air and water quality issues. Both run up against hard political boundaries that limit the approach. Some local and state departments of transportation, notably Mississippi’s, demonstrate an enlightened understanding of transportation as a multi-modal system, but the U.S. Congress and Federal DOT wear blinders, seeing only one piece, one project at a time.

What to do? First, teach systems thinking in school, starting with high school and continuing in college and professional schools. Professional societies can organize conferences and encourage systems-oriented papers just as they do case studies, with a separate journal section. They can offer continuing education on systems approaches in various disciplines. They can educate the public, politicians, and agencies. As individuals, we can search out books and short courses to help us open our horizons. A good place to start is the book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella H. Meadows. We can educate and encourage our elected officials to think in terms of holistic systems.

Are you listening? “Systems.”