BAY SAINT LOUIS — Mississippi Gulf Coast residents gathered at the Hancock County Library in Bay Saint Louis on Tuesday ready to voice their opposition over the use of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which in recent years has plagued the Coast fisheries and the area’s overall economy.

But the public meeting, they learned, is part of a much broader effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reevaluate how it manages the Lower Mississippi River, which stretches from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to the Gulf of Mexico. The meeting on Tuesday was the first in a series the corps is holding over the next two weeks.

“It’s people, and it’s the environment, and it’s how do we balance all of our missions in this study considering the sediment and water budget in the Mississippi River, and how can we manage the overall study area in the best way possible for the next hundred years,” said Elizabeth Behrens, chief of the Environmental Studies Section for the corps’ New Orleans District.

Officially titled the Lower Mississippi River Comprehensive Management Study, the venture is a result of the Water Resources Development Act of 2020, and comes with $25 million of funding.

Elizabeth Behrens, Chief of Environmental Studies Section for the Corps’ New Orleans District. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

The goal of the study, which will be a five-year effort, is to recommend specific projects around flood control, floodplain management, navigation, environmental restoration, hydropower and recreation, among other purposes.

General project ideas that the corps is already considering include: balancing water and sediment throughout the river and tributary system, reconnecting the river to its floodplain in certain areas, stabilizing channels, reducing flood risk for disadvantaged areas and changing the use of existing structure.

In the first stage of the study, the corps is traveling to cities throughout the Lower Mississippi River plain to hear what ideas residents have. Additional Mississippi meetings will take place in Stoneville on Feb. 28, Natchez on Feb. 29, and Vicksburg on March. 11 (visit the corps’ study website for details on meeting details and how to submit feedback).

One of the existing structures that the corps may reevaluate is the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which the agency built in the late 1920s and early 1930s as part of the federal government’s response to the Great Flood of 1927. The spillway’s purpose is to divert incoming flood waters from New Orleans. When the Mississippi River reaches a certain height, the corps opens the Bonnet Carré, sending water into Lake Ponchartrain that eventually flows into the Mississippi Sound.

The corps has operated the spillway for roughly 90 years, but never as frequently as the last decade. In 2019, for the first time ever, the it opened the spillway twice in a calendar year.

The resulting influx of freshwater into the Mississippi Sound has historically disrupted the habitats of species such oysters, shrimp, crabs and even dolphins. The 2019 spillway openings devastated the populations of those species in the Sound, and subsequently local fisheries and the tourist-driven economy on the Coast as well.

Former Biloxi mayor Gerald Blessey speaks at a meeting for the Army Corps’ Lower Mississippi River Comprehensive Management Study in Bay Saint Louis. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Gerald Blessey, former mayor of Biloxi, said at Tuesday’s meeting that the corps needs to make changes to the spillway’s protocol before the end of the five-year study.

“We can expect more and more water (coming down the Mississippi River),” Blessey said. “There will be more floods. We can’t wait five years to start working on solutions.”

In response to the 2019 openings, Blessey and other Coast leaders organized the Mississippi Sound Coalition to call attention to the issue. Last month, the Coalition filed a lawsuit against the corps, alleging the agency violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act by lowering the salinity and causing “direct and indirect mortality of many resident bottleneck dolphins.”

On Wednesday, a Mississippi state Senate committee passed the “Mississippi Comprehensive Coastal Conservation and Restoration Act of 2024,” a bill that would create an advisory board to work with state agencies in restoring coastal habitats.

The corps will take input on its new Mississippi River study from the public until April 2.

Behrens, the corps staffer, said the study is a historic effort in developing how the federal government manages the Mississippi River.

“This is really unprecedented,” she said. “We’ve been operating on the river since the (1920s), and we’ve been operating it off of a consistent program for a while, so this is a monumental effort. A lot of people who are no longer even living looked forward to the day that we would look again at the Mississippi River and balancing it for all these missions.”

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