Lake Okhissa project back on track

Published 5:00 am Friday, August 20, 2004

BUDE – U.S. Forest Service officials say dam construction forthe Lake Okhissa recreational area resumed earlier this year andthey hope to have the lake filled with water by early 2007.

The contractor is currently working on erosion control measuresand raising the dam to its specified 97.1 feet. The 1,000-acre lakewill be part of an estimated 5,000-acre recreation project.

“It’ll be the tallest dam in Mississippi when completed and, Ithink, the largest body of water south of I-20,” said DanStrawbridge, interim ranger at the Homochitto National Forest.

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The Natural Resources Conservation Services is administering thecontract to build the earthen dam on Homochitto National Forestland.

Work on the approximately $10 million dam project started backin January. The previous contractor, who had started in September2000, defaulted in December 2002, service officials said.

Strawbridge said Pickett Industries, of Shreveport, La., hadreceived the contract for completion of the dam, which should takeless than a year. The contractor has made “amazing” progress, saidofficials, who also credited good weather.

“Weather has not been perfect, but it has definitely cooperatedwith him,” Strawbridge said.

Project Manager Carol Boll said 1.8 million cubic yards of dirtis needed for dam. Much of the needed dirt has come from elsewherein the recreation project area.

One erosion control measure being done includes cellularconcrete blocks, which are being placed on the dam’s face andcovered with dirt. The public will not see the blocks, which aredesigned to stop erosion should the covering materials be washedaway.

“It won’t get any further than this,” said Public AffairsOfficer Mary Bell Lunsford.

Once the dam is completed, the valve will be closed to allow thelake to fill with water. Boll said the closure is expected to bedone in the fall.

“From that time, it’ll take 2.5 years for water to fill thelake,” Boll said.

That would put the lake being filled by late 2006 or early 2007.Strawbridge said that is based on average rainfall amounts.

“That’s weather-dependent, so we can’t really hang our hat onthat date,” Strawbridge said.

The lake will have 39 miles of shoreline. The lake’s averagedepth will be 31 feet, with a maximum depth of 73 feet at thedam.

The lake will be stocked with a wide variety of fish. Officialssaid that should start this year and will take about 18 months.

The next item on the agenda is construction of seven miles oftwo-lane roads to serve as main access routes into the area. Theforest service is partnering with the Federal HighwayTransportation Administration, the Mississippi Department OfTransportation and the Mississippi Development Authority on thatproject.

“The contract is out for bids now,” Boll said.

A bid opening scheduled for Sept. 2. Officials are estimatingroad construction costs between $5 and $7.5 million.

“With the kind of terrain we have here, road construction likethat is fairly expensive,” Strawbridge said.

Officials said approximately 20 contractors attended a pre-bidmeeting Tuesday on the road contract.

“They had a strong turnout for that,” Strawbridge said.

Boll added that bike trails will be on either side of theroad.

A contract for a timber sale is also out for bids, which areexpecting back in early September. The tree clearing is needed forthe working zone for roads.

In addition to the lake, officials said 4,000 acres will beavailable for development. Included in the plans are camping areas,day zones for family outings, a marina and education-orientedactivities.

While federal funding is being used for dam, road and otherinfrastructure, officials are looking for a private investment of$15 to 30 million to develop the recreational opportunities. Thatcould push overall lake project development costs to over $40million, but an exact total is not yet known.

“So much is going to depend on what the recreation providerspropose to do,” Strawbridge said.

Strawbridge said a recreation project prospectus is beingfinalized. Once it is approved, a request for proposals will besent out.

Boll said there is a mailing list of over 200 potential biddersfor the recreation contract. Some are large operations, some smalland some are simply curious about what is being sought.

“We’ve had some very strong interest in doing this,” Bollsaid.

Officials said economic diversity and rural development weremajor factors in the decision to pursue the project. Economicdevelopment officials have estimated the lake could attract 250,000to 500,000 visitors a year.

“If everything works, it should provide a large economic impactfor the area,” Strawbridge said.