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.