The rainiest new year in memory swelled the Pearl River and inundated more than 450 homes and businesses in the Jackson area in recent weeks. The flooding has been a humanitarian and economic disaster for a city that contends with infrastructure emergencies on its sunniest days. It has also reignited a longstanding debate about whether a flood control project could or should provide a lifeboat for the city’s flagging population and tax base.
The woeful state of Jackson’s roads, water lines, and sewer system are the result of decades of population loss and economic stagnation that has depleted the city of badly-needed resources. At last count, a little more than 160,000 residents are supporting the sprawling infrastructure built to accommodate 200,000 people — Jackson’s population in 1979, when Pearl River rose to a Biblical level and submerged much of the city on Easter Sunday.
At the time, Jackson was the 20th-largest city in the Southeast and 71st-largest in the U.S. It has fallen to no. 58 in the region and no. 159 in the country — part of a vicious cycle that causes more and more of Mississippi’s young people to look for opportunity in cities outside the state.
Despite the 1979 catastrophe — which displaced 17,000 people and cost $1.7 billion in today’s dollars — and another major flood in 1983, Jackson’s defenses against the Pearl have changed very little. The holdup has been political, not technical.
The federal government assumes a significant share of the costs of flood control, and for the past four decades, they have sought a strategy to keep the Pearl River out of Jackson’s streets. Initial plans called for water to be diverted away from the city: first, by building a dry dam in a rural area northeast of Jackson to capture floodwaters before they hit the city, and later, by building more levees in the Jackson area to channel water downstream more rapidly. Both plans were effectively vetoed in the legislature by upriver and downriver interests who didn’t like the idea of flooding their land to keep Jackson dry.
As Jackson’s population began to shrink in the 1980s, the city’s business and political leaders recast the federally-subsidized flood control project as a means of solving their economic woes as well. Instead of taking water away from the city, they proposed retaining it in a new reservoir near downtown Jackson. The plan has gone through several iterations since the 1990s, but the latest version, “One Lake,” would bottle up the Pearl between Lakeland Drive and I-20 to mitigate flooding and create opportunities for development and outdoor recreation. Proponents see the $345 million lake plan as the shot-in-the-arm that the city desperately needs to replenish its population and tax base.
Critics of One Lake contend that any economic benefits to the Jackson area would come at the expense of the residents and wildlife along the rest of the Pearl’s meandering 300-mile run to the Mississippi Sound and Gulf of Mexico. It has drawn harsh condemnation, as well as lawsuits, from downriver communities in Mississippi and Louisiana. Not everyone in Jackson is on board, either. Some local opponents are pushing for flood control alternatives that would preserve the natural, meandering character of the river while creating a “greenway” of trails and parks to enhance the city’s outdoor amenities.
The One Lake plan is slowly grinding its way through an environmental impact review, and multiple decision-makers on the local, state, and federal level will need to sign off before any dirt, or water, is moved. As the climate gets warmer and wetter, time is not on the side of Jacksonians whose livelihoods are threatened by the next influx of water. At the same time, the continued outflow of people and tax dollars will further strain Jackson’s ability to keep up with its day-to-day infrastructure needs. There is little outside money on the table to fix those things, so it is easy to see the appeal of leveraging the existing federal flood control commitment to try to alter the city’s trajectory.
Whatever happens from here, Jackson’s flooding is a prime case study in the difficulty of aligning the interests of multiple stakeholders to solve a single public problem, much less two.