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Pearl River diversion plan seeing new life

An old plan for economic development is gaining new life inMonticello.

Lawrence County Community Development Foundation Director BobSmira said a plan to divert the Pearl River down a manmadehalf-mile channel and create opportunities for waterfrontdevelopment has taken a crucial step forward with the enlistment ofsupport by landowners in the project area.

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

Smira said he and Monticello Mayor Dave Nichols will makeanother round of presentations and discussion on the project thissummer, beginning with a meeting of landowners next month.

With “a better handle” on the feelings and ideas of thelandowners, county and city officials will then make furtherpresentations to the Mississippi Development Authority and thearea’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C. during anannual visit in July. Smira said the project received a favorablereception from the delegation last year.

Even with the recent headway being made, Smira pointed out theproject is still in its initial phases, even after 20 years ofexistence.

The plan to divert the Pearl River was first envisioned by theU.S. Army Corp of Engineers in 1985, Smira said, as a means tocontrol erosion on the river’s south bank on the north side ofMonticello. Under the plan, the river would be diverted in asoutheasterly direction from the Highway 84 bypass, rejoiningitself on the northeast side of town.

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

An island measuring anywhere between 60 to 300 acres would alsobe created by the diversion process. Studies that would determinethe island’s actual size have not been completed.

Even after several buildings on the existing riverbank weremoved to save them from being washing away, the diversion plan haslay dormant.

It was revived in recent years, however, when erosion began tothreaten Cooper’s Ferry Park. Charlie Bufkin, who serves on thepark’s board of directors, revived the plan and began pushing forit.

However, the diversion project will serve more purpose thansimply saving buildings from erosion. The main selling point of theidea – the point that has captured the attention of governmentofficials – is the possibility for economic development.

“MDA, in the last couple of years, has taken a hard look at whatthey call non-traditional economic development,” Smira said. “Forso many years, we were chasing smokestacks – manufacturing jobs.But there’s a lot of good economic opportunities related towaterfront development.”

Smira said the creation of the lake and island that would resultfrom diverting the Pearl River could create tourism, travel andhousing markets in Monticello that the town has never enjoyedbefore. He said the potential would then exist for destinationdevelopments such as parks, water sports and boating and realestate industries to thrive.

Such waterfront development is widely supported by MDA.

“We’re trying to promote that across the state – we have a lakevision for Mississippi,” said MDA Asset Development Manager JoyFoy. “Lakes bring to an area the possibility of populationexpansion. More people will locate around a lake than they will ifyou just go out there and build a subdivision. It’s pretty, peoplewant to live on pretty land – they will pay a high price to live onthe water.”

Foy said she had no doubt that, if the project is approved, itwill have its desired effect on Monticello. She said there would belittle problems with getting approval from the powers that be, asMDA is seeing support from Washington, D.C. all over the state forwaterfront development.

But getting the project’s many phases lined up will no doubt bedifficult. The approval of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers isneeded before the first shovel-load of dirt can be moved, and ahost of permits from agencies such as the Mississippi Department ofWildlife, Fisheries and Parks; the Mississippi Department ofEnvironmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency wouldhave to be obtained.

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

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

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

“At this point, the project is not presentable to potentialinvestors until we can get that engineering work done,” Smirasaid.

There is also one crucial factor in the plan that may result inits early termination. Nichols said the livelihood of downstreamresidents would have to be considered.

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

Nichols said a hydraulic analysis to determine the potential forsuch flooding was absolutely necessary before the project could getoff the ground. He hopes the corp of engineers could devise a wayfor the project to be constructed and the flooding controlled, forthe benefits of the diversion of the river are substantial.

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