BILOXI, Miss. (AP) — Oyster fishermen are alarmed about a Mississippi flood control project they say could harm their industry, if it becomes reality.
The One Lake Project is aimed at preventing a flood like the one that devastated metro Jackson in 1979.
But critics say that damming the Pearl River to create the new lake could threaten the oyster industry, as well as endangered species.
Opponents fear that the project will alter the flow of freshwater into the Mississippi Sound at the mouth of the Pearl River, The Sun Herald reported .
That could throw off the balance between freshwater and saltwater that's necessary to grow oysters, according to The Gulf Restoration Network.
Project supports say there's no evidence that will happen. They say that along with flood control, the project will help the metro Jackson economy with parks and lakefront homes.
"What they say is everything is fine," said Andrew Whitehurst, water policy director for the Gulf Restoration Network. "But if you go through the data with a comb, without a lot of averaging, you find the flow is different than what they say."
Evaporation levels for the lake are a key factor in the projections. Whitehurst said he's consulted experts who predict that enough water will be lost to evaporation to lower water levels in the lower Pearl and change its salinity, the newspaper reported.
It will be up to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine whether the project will further disrupt the oyster industry. Even if it secures the Corps' approval, backers would have to come up with more than $130 million for the project.
"This project works," said Keith Turner, a lawyer for the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District, which wants to build the lake.
"Technically it works," Turner said. "The impacts have been studied by the Corps, the Fish and Wildlife experts. I don't have a report I can hand you that says that, but those are the dialogues we're having with them because we're in the review process. We've had a two-year review process. A lot of people are looking at it."
"So far no one has said we're going to cause a problem on the flow issue," Turner added.
The flood control project is the most recent response to the Easter flood of 1979, when rain upstream pushed the Pearl River 25 feet above flood stage, prompting 17,000 people to flee their homes.
The oyster industry, mostly on the western end of the Mississippi, has been struggling for years.
Hurricane Katrina filled the Sound with debris it wiped out along the beach. Then, the BP oil spill further distressed the oyster reefs. And a 2011 Mississippi River flood did more damage with a massive infusion of freshwater.
Mississippi has spent millions of dollars trying to revive those reefs with the ambitious goal of producing a million sacks of oysters a year.
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