Homochitto erosion taking bridges

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, July 20, 2004

MEADVILLE — A lack of funding may force supervisors topermanently abandon a damaged and closed bridge, already blamed forone death, in the southwest corner of Franklin County.

Officials are also wary about the cost of other bridges on theHomochitto River and are closely monitoring bank caving in troubleareas.

The Garden City Bridge, which crosses Wells Creek, has beenclosed for more than a year, said District Two Supervisor ChadSmith, and efforts to fund a replacement are failing.

“At least it’s not a major bridge,” said District FourSupervisor Jerry Howell, who was recently appointed after theelected supervisor stepped down to pursue a personal interest.

According to Howell, the bridge is infrequently used. Only twoor three families live on the western side of the bridge inFranklin County. The bridge is most often used as a cutoff forAdams County residents visiting Franklin County.

The Garden City Bridge was severely damaged in February 2003when a heavy rain caused the creek to swell with waters from theHomochitto River, collapsing banks on both sides, Smith said. Thewestern side of the bridge had the worst collapse, with the bankcaving off completely from beneath the bridge.

Supervisors closed the road and the bridge to traffic, but thatwasn’t enough to prevent a tragedy, he said.

A thin surface of only inches of undermined soil was stillattached to the bridge on the western side, and a woman was killedwhen she tried to cross on a four-wheeler about two months ago. Thebank gave way and she fell approximately 25 feet to the creekbed.

“It looked like there was still a road there,” Smith said.

A hole five feet wide that separates half the bridge width fromthe road remains in mute testimony to the dangers posed by thecaving.

Downed trees still litter the creek bed, which has grown fromapproximately 20 feet wide to nearly 60 feet wide in the past yearas heavy rains continuously struck off larger pieces of the banks.It has also grown deeper, from about 10 feet to nearly 25 feet.

Cracks on the western bank are already apparent and show afour-foot-deep section of bank ready to collapse.

The normally placid creek, which scarcely covers a third of thechannel in calm weather, swells into a raging beast during heavyrains, officials said.

“You would think with a channel that deep and wide it would beenough, but it’s not,” Smith said. “It’s still washing out theroad.”

State and federal officials are aware of the problem.

“It just gets worse and worse,” said Greg Brinson with the U.S.Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.”This is going on all up and down this river.”

Brinson said he had been working with the supervisors to obtainan Emergency Watershed Protection Program grant to replace thebridge. He has been able to secure about $500,000 for the project,but it’s just not enough.

“This would be a big problem for any county, and right now it’sa bigger problem than Franklin County can handle,” he said.

The grant money could only be used to cover 75 percent of thecost to stabilize and repair the existing bridge structure, Brinsonsaid. Supervisors would have to come up with the remaining 25percent for the existing portion.

But that’s not all, he said. Because of the damage the bridgehas sustained from other heavy rains since the initial damage,essentially tripling the width of the creek bed, an additionalbridge span or two would be required to scale the larger gap. Thecounty would have to fund that entire bill.

Original efforts to repair the bridge were stymied by legalissues with the landowners, Brinson said, because their rights todo anything with the land was bound up in a legal matter. Whilesupervisors waited for that technicality to be resolved, heavystorms pummeled the county and inflicted even more damage to thebridge and banks.

The cost of the bridge stabilization alone has been estimated at$666,000, more than double the initial estimate of $300,000.

Unfortunately, Brinson said, funding problems for the bridgedon’t stop there. The Garden City Road bridge over Wells Creek,like all other bridges in the area, would continue to suffer frommajor bank caving, which would require constant supervision andrepair to ensure the bridge remains safe for travel.

“I can’t see us continuing to spend money on this bridge whenthe bank keeps caving off,” Howell said. “It would be anever-ending struggle.”

Smith agreed, adding that most of the bridges on the river werein trouble.

“I attribute most of our problems, if not all, to the HomochittoRiver,” Smith said, with Brinson nodding emphatically.

The 80-mile long Homochitto River has its headwaters in CopiahCounty near the Lincoln County line and is fed by more than sixtributaries and thousands of acres of forested wetlands along itsplunging course.

“There’s just a tremendous amount of water that comes down thatriver,” Brinson said.

Further adding to the damaging effects of the river iselevation. At its headwaters, the Homochitto River stands at 500feet above sea level, which is higher that the headwaters of thePearl River, according to Harold Prather of the SouthwestMississippi Resources and Conservation District (SWMRCD). The riverdrops to an elevation of only 50 feet above sea level within 70miles.

“That’s a pretty steep drop,” Prather said. “Water flows throughhere pretty quickly and with a lot of force behind it.”

The constant barrage of fast-flowing water has taken its toll onthe banks during heavy storms, when the water flow is increased inboth volume and speed. It hammers at the banks in the bends andundermines them, causing them to collapse and taking banks severalfeet deep at a time, Prather said.

The bank collapses are slowly changing the course of the river,he said. More than 3,000 acres have been lost in the past 50 yearsto the river changing course.

Landowners, too, are losing precious farmland to the river as itchews into their pastures or timber stands.

“Some entire farms are just gone,” Prather said, citing NASAmaps taken on a joint project that show satellite photos of 50years ago compared to today.

An estimated 12,700,000 tons of soil loss is attributed to theHomochitto River annually, according to a joint project reportissued by the SWMRCD.

Potentially larger problems are looming just over the horizon,Prather said, citing bank caving along a section of the river thatis spanned by Highway 33.

The Highway 33 Bridge was built in 1974 with nine heavy steelspans that were 250 feet long each. Two spans on each side satsquarely on land. Now, only 90 feet of the 500 feet of the twospans on one side of the river rests over land. A gap of about sixfeet separates those spans from the banks on which they sat.

And the bank beneath those spans continues to dwindle as theriver widens its course. The 1,000 yard long, 11-foot high bankloses four yards a year to the ever-widening river, Prathersaid.

“At the rate it’s going, in a few more years they’ll have toreplace this bridge, too,” he said.

Long term solutions to the bank caving are elusive, flowing awayas quickly as a log in the river during a storm.

Normal methods of controlling bank caving have been consideredand dismissed as ineffectual or cost prohibitive, Prather said.

“A lot of things have been suggested, but I don’t really knowwhat the answer is,” Prather said. “Maybe it’s a combination ofthings we haven’t thought of yet.”