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Pearl River Diversion Plan Sees New Life in Lawrence County, Mississippi

Thu July 17, 2008 - Southeast Edition
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MONTICELLO, Miss. (AP) An old plan for economic development is gaining new life in Monticello.

Lawrence County Community Development Foundation Director Bob Smira said a plan to divert the Pearl River down a man-made half-mile (0.8 km) channel and create opportunities for waterfront development has taken a crucial step forward with the enlistment of support of landowners in the project area.

“That’s kind of your first break,” Smira said. “When you get someone who has money, or has a way to get people to invest money in development, you’re starting to get on the power curve instead of behind it.”

Smira said he and Monticello Mayor Dave Nichols will make another round of presentations and discussion on the project this summer, beginning with a meeting of landowners in June.

With “a better handle” on the feelings and ideas of the landowners, county and city officials will then make further presentations to the Mississippi Development Authority and the area’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., during an annual visit in July. Smira said the project received a favorable reception from the delegation last year.

Even with the recent headway being made, Smira said the project is still in its initial phases, even after 20 years of existence.

The plan to divert the Pearl River was first envisioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1985, Smira said, as a means to control erosion on the river’s south bank on the north side of Monticello.

Under the plan, the river would be diverted in a southeasterly direction from the U.S. Highway 84 bypass, rejoining itself on the northeast side of town.

The old riverbed would then become an oxbow lake, controlled by a weir — a low-lying spillway — on the north end and a dam on the south end.

An island measuring anywhere between 60 to 300 acres (24 to 121 ha) would also be created by the diversion process. Studies that would determine the island’s actual size have not been completed.

Even after several buildings on the existing riverbank were moved to save them from being washed away, the diversion plan has lain dormant.

It was revived in recent years, however, when erosion began to threaten Cooper’s Ferry Park. Charlie Bufkin, who serves on the park’s board of directors, revived the plan and began pushing for it.

However, the diversion project will serve more purpose than simply saving buildings from erosion. The main selling point of the idea — the point that has captured the attention of government officials — is the possibility for economic development.

“MDA, in the last couple of years, has taken a hard look at what they call nontraditional economic development,” Smira said. “For so many years, we were chasing smokestacks — manufacturing jobs. But there’s a lot of good economic opportunities related to waterfront development.”

Smira said the creation of the lake and island that would result from diverting the Pearl River could create tourism, travel and housing markets in Monticello that the town has never enjoyed before. He said the potential would then exist for destination developments such as parks, water sports and boating and real estate industries to thrive.

Such waterfront development is widely supported by MDA.

“We’re trying to promote that across the state — we have a lake vision for Mississippi,” said MDA Asset Development Manager Joy Foy. “Lakes bring to an area the possibility of population expansion. More people will locate around a lake than they will if you just go out there and build a subdivision. It’s pretty, people want to live on pretty land — they will pay a high price to live on the water.”

Foy said she had no doubt that, if the project is approved, it will have its desired effect on Monticello. She said there would be little problems with getting approval from the powers that be, as MDA is seeing support from Washington, D.C., all over the state for waterfront development.

Getting the project’s many phases lined up will no doubt be difficult. The approval of the Corps of Engineers is needed before the first shovel-load of dirt can be moved, and a host of permits from agencies such as the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks; the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality; and the Environmental Protection Agency would have to be obtained.

“There’s a whole sundry of permits and divisions that they will have to go through for this to happen,” Foy said. “The permitting will probably be the most lengthy process.”

Smira said the amount of engineering work that remains to be done is significant. Such factors remain to be determined such as the river’s new exact course, its width and depth, the elevation of the island that would be created and how much land would be involved in the project.

There also is the matter of cost, which, at this point, is impossible to determine. Smira said the project was estimated at just over $1 million in 1985. Adjusted to modern dollars, that price is just over $3 million, but the figure bears no relevance until a great deal of engineering work at the site can be done.

“At this point, the project is not presentable to potential investors until we can get that engineering work done,” Smira said.

Nichols said the livelihood of downstream residents would have to be considered.

“Even though this project could create all these jobs, if it increases downstream flooding we’re not going to go forward with it,” he said. “We’re not gonna dump more water on the people downstream — that’s not the right thing to do.”

Nichols said a hydraulic analysis to determine the potential for such flooding was absolutely necessary before the project could get off the ground. He hopes the Corps could devise a way for the project to be constructed and the flooding controlled, for the benefits of the diversion of the river are substantial.

“This project would have huge impact,” Nichols said. “There are different thoughts on developing the island, but this would create jobs and make the town a tourist destination. All that just makes the local economy better. If it happens, this would be one of the best things to hit Southwest Mississippi, not just Monticello.”

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