Balancing on the Barstool

Alcohol is what makes a martini sing, beer buzz and wine fine. It’s also a poison and—along with nicotine—the only recreational drug legally available in most states to the American public, which consumes it in its various forms to the tune of an estimated $110 billion dollars a year.

ethyl moloculeEthyl alcohol (C2H5OH) is formed by the action of yeast upon sugar and starches. The yeasts that create alcohol are among the oldest cultivated plants in the history of civilization, and some archeological studies suggest that mankind may well have been brewers before they were bakers, probably as early as the Mesolithic period, some 7000 years ago. Bad pick-up lines, irresponsible sex and hangovers also date from this period. Drinking as a subject represents the prime example of a familiar topic that on closer examination becomes quite arcane. Drinking is steeped in tradition, exalted in verse, celebrated in song and provides pleasure to millions, yet to others it is a curse.

The devil on the rocks

Before there was a wild West, there was a wild Southwest, and Mississippi was its cornerstone. At that time, any city or town with a berth on a river (which most of them had in those days before rail) eventually found itself host to a riverfront district subject to laws that were either non-existent or non-enforced.

This sketch of Natchez-Under-The-Hill was drawn in 1866 by A. R. Waud, for Harpers Weekly.
This sketch of Natchez-Under-The-Hill was drawn in 1866 by A. R. Waud, for Harpers Weekly.

Natchez-Under-the-Hill is a prime example of such a red light district, but Jackson harbored a similar section during its early development. Audubon, who visited the area in the 1820s, said that the banks of the Pearl under LeFleur’s Bluff were filled with “low dives of the worst sort.” One of the most notorious dens of iniquity was located just below the corner of North and Amite Street, within spitting distance of the Old Capitol itself, now the site of the Winter Building housing the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. As fortified as these fiefs of John Barleycorn were, they soon found themselves inundated by the spirit of Protestant evangelism that was spilling its way down from the Northeast. The first churches were established here well before Mississippi became a state, but the nineteenth century revivals increased their numbers a thousand fold, and their influence on state laws regarding alcohol were (and still are) formidable.

Mississippi is still legally “dry” in that the state never has repealed Prohibition. According to the Mississippi Code of 1972, “The policy of this state is reannounced in favor of prohibition of the manufacture, sale, distribution, possession and transportation of intoxicating liquor; and the provisions against such manufacture, sale, distribution, possession and transportation of intoxicating liquor, as contained in Chapter 31 of Title 97, Mississippi Code of 1972 and elsewhere, are hereby redeclared the law of this state.” Instead, the state has granted counties and municipalities to “come out from under the dry law” in local option elections.

William F. Shughart II, an economist at the University of Mississippi, wrote in an article for the Independent Institute that “when national Prohibition was repealed in 1933, so that the federal government would be able to offset declining income-tax revenues by reintroducing selective excise taxes on distilled spirits, wine, and beer, the regulation of alcohol sales was left to the individual states. Mississippi finally went “wet” in 1966, choosing to become one of 18 jurisdictions operating state-owned wholesale liquor distribution systems. Other states, like Pennsylvania and Virginia, sell alcoholic beverages directly to consumers through state-run liquor stores, and still others, like California, simply tax liquor sales at retail.”

The ABCs of alcohol

In Mississippi, the Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) of the Mississippi State Tax Commission is responsible for the purchasing and distribution of wines and spirits. The ABC buys about 3,000 brands and package sizes of wine and ardent spirits from vintners and distillers. As the enforcer of the state’s liquor laws, ABC is also responsible for maintaining fair and equitable enforcement of the Local Option ABC laws and the prohibition laws. Twenty-eight certified enforcement agents are stationed across the state, most of whom maintain offices at the Tax Commission District Offices. Since 1966, ABC agents have successfully prosecuted in excess of 36,000 liquor law violations and destroyed approximately 2,500 illicit whiskey stills. David Wilson, Chief of Enforcement for ABC, said, “We have much more of a problem with unlicensed sellers, but we still catch a lot of moonshiners. You might say that we have a lot of unlicensed distribution points, and that’s a continuing concern. If you’ll look at the map, you’ll see that almost half of the state is still dry, and if there’s drinking going on in those parts, there must be an unlicensed distributor.”

State law requires the ABC to mark up the wholesale price on alcohol by 27.5% over what it pays its suppliers. This markup generates about $32,500,000 in revenue for the state annually, not counting the sales taxes which are also collected on retail liquor sales. The actual mark-up for the general fund is 24.5; the other three percent, dictated by statute, goes to the Mental Health Association, purportedly for alcohol rehabilitation and treatment.

“As it sits now, the state of Mississippi itself controls what sort of beer, wine or spirits you might legally prefer to have at your dinner parties,” Shughart said. “Until any given alcoholic beverage has been included in the state list (ABC’s “Price Book” or on its monthly “Fine Wine List”), it is unavailable to the citizens of Mississippi.”

The alcoholic beverages purchased by the ABC are shipped to its 186,000 square-foot warehouse located in South Madison County’s Industrial Park, from which every year 2,000,000 cases of wine and distilled spirits are reshipped to the state’s 1,250 retailers who are licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for either on- or off-premise consumption where local-option laws permit. It is a massively complex operation. According to Joe Perkins, Deputy Director of the ABC, additions to the list are based on consumer demand, as well as demand from the retail stores and the industry. “This includes the venders, brokers, and companies that we buy from will present listings to us, submit lists to our purchasing department who decide, based on brand support and consumer demand whether we should list a particular brand or not. This decision is ultimately approved by the three commissioners, Commissioner Ed Buelow Jr. along with Associate Commissioners Terry Jordan and Donald Green, who oversee the ABC.”

“We add various sizes of products according to consumer needs and we work with the companies on these sizes, too. Sometimes the company will dictate when they want a product in a particular part of the country and in what size, so it’s a little more involved (to add a particular product) than people sometimes think. We do everything we can to give the consumers what they want,” Perkins added. “We do all the work of getting the pricing, getting the case or whatever ordered, getting it in here and getting it out to them.”

Mike Cashion, former executive director of the Mississippi Restaurant Association, said, “There are some aspects of the system that work well. The issue of being able to pick up the phone and order a product from one central location is pretty convenient. But overall with the system you just need to look at it and see if there’s a better way to do business. If you look at what happened a couple of months ago (October 17) when the ABC had to shut down (due to a problem with computer software), I think that’s indicative of the fact that there are some operational issues that need to be reviewed,” Cashion said. “There were several areas that needed to be fixed. From a business perspective you need to look at what caused those problems and see what those long-term fixes are.”

Cashion said that the ABC has made some inroads in procedures on how to special order and has made some progress on that, but he points out that when it comes to blanket availability there are a lot of factors involved. “It’s very, very complicated and there’s no easy fix and no easy answers to the questions that are out there,” Cashion said.

Incidentally, the spirit and wine law is separate from the beer and light wine law; beer and light wine permits are issued by the Miscellaneous Tax Division of the state tax commission. This division registers all beer and light wine labels and issues permits to wholesalers. The tax commission issues wholesale beer permits to distributors (wholesalers), and beer permits to retailers. The wholesalers distribute beers and light wines to retailers, which number about seven or eight thousand in the state, including bars, restaurants, retail groceries and convenience stores. The only direct dealing the ABC has to do with beer is that ABC agents enforce the beer laws.

Of booze and bods

The way the body disposes of alcohol has been on record since the nineteenth century, having first been described by the German chemist von Liebig. Before Liebig, it was generally assumed that alcohol simply passed through the body without change, only to be eventually excreted in its original form by the skin, lungs and kidneys.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Most foods (and alcohol is a food, albeit a poor one) need to be broken down and remodeled by various agents in the mouth and stomach in order to be oxidized in the body. But ethyl alcohol doesn’t need any sort of preparation; it is as naturally as digestible as water, and can be assimilated into the body by the stomach, the small intestine, or even the large intestine (yes, you can get drunk from a vodka enema). Since alcohol has no effect until it reaches the bloodstream, the key to the effects of alcohol on the central nervous system lies in what as known as the blood alcohol level (BAL). It is recorded in milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, or milligrams percent. For example, a BAL of .10 means that 1/10 of 1 percent (or 1/1000) of your total blood content is alcohol.

Various factors influence the rate of alcohol absorption, the most crucial of which is the speed with which it is drunk. The effect on the body of a quick succession of high-proof drinks is shattering, and can even be fatal. With increasing alcohol consumption, unconsciousness and even a failure to breathe becomes more likely. In extreme instances, the alcohol level is so high that the sleep center in the brain becomes depressed, breathing stops and death may occur. Yet a mild degree of intoxication is the very reason why most people drink at all. The vast majority of people who drink do so because they find it enjoyable. Most people who drink choose to do so for at least partially hedonistic reasons. If fact, this may be the single most obvious reason that some anhedonic religious groups not only abstain from alcohol, but condemn drinking on the part of others. All over the world, people claim to drink because they like the taste, the sense of celebration and relaxation that comes with drinking, the mood alteration it provides, and the positive social aspects that surround it.

Alcohol is almost unique in that it has a dual effect on the central nervous system. Briefly, on the upswing curve the blood alcohol level, it acts as a stimulant. After the first drink or two, most drinkers feel animated and most can even perform better in tests of eye-hand coordination. But relaxation is another common reason for drinking, especially in the context of leisure time. Refreshment might also be an aspect of this: a cold beer on a hot summer day, for instance, or a warm toddy on a cold winter night. Then again, for most people, a drink or two is enough to cause an alteration in mood, and for most people this change is pleasurable. You’ll find people explaining that having a few drinks after a round of hectic activity—say a day at work—is a relaxing activity. Hence we have that institution with the blithe name of happy hour, during which for an hour or more during the afternoons you can drink at reduced prices, presumably with the result of becoming happy. Not so recently, since some critics have voiced the complaint that drinking should not be promoted as a key to happiness, some of the more progressive drinking establishments have instituted what is known as an “attitude adjustment hour.”

Yet however enjoyable or pleasurable a few drinks can be, a steady increase in the levels of alcohol in the blood has less fortunate effects. After several drinks, disorientation is followed by mental confusion, dizziness, and increased muscular incoordination. Further intoxication usually results in staggering gait and slurred speech, marked muscular incoordination, the inability to stand or walk, vomiting and incontinence, impaired consciousness and stupor.

When the party’s over

Drunkenness is condemned down through the ages. “At the first cup,” a Japanese poet wrote, man drinks wine. At the second cup, wine drinks wine. At the third cup, wine drinks man.” Genghis Khan recommended that a soldier not get drunk more than once a week. “It would be better if he did not get drunk at all,” he wrote, “but one should not expect the impossible.” The Jews filled the Old Testament with denunciations of drunkenness; the “strong drink” of the Old Testament is considered to be undiluted wine, since distilled spirits didn’t come about until around 800 A.D. The lyric poet Alcaeus wrote of habitual excess that “One that hath wine as a chain about his wits, such a one lives no life at all.”

Throughout history, it was obvious that no matter how much time someone spent in the gutter or in the stocks, or how often they were threatened with hellfire and brimstone, no matter how much their family begged and beseeched them to quit drinking, some people just kept getting drunk. Gradually the “problem” with alcohol became removed from the outward and everyday fact of drunkenness itself to a realization that there were some people who showed a propensity to get drunk whenever the opportunity presented itself. What made these drinkers stand out as different was that they easily lost control over their drinking and just got sloppy drunk again and again and again. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that alcoholism and alcohol abuse in the United States cost society from $40 to $60 billion annually, due to the lost production, health and medical care, motor vehicle accidents, violent crime, and social programs that respond to alcohol problems. One half of all traffic fatalities and one-third of all traffic injuries are related to the abuse of alcohol.

Alcoholism is a complex medical and psychological condition, and many theories have been put forward to explain the phenomenon. Initially, of course, alcoholics were simply dismissed as inveterate sinners, but as people began losing faith (so to speak) in sin as an all-embracing explanation of deviant behavior, they began to consider that perhaps something was constitutionally wrong with this sort of drinker. The concept of alcoholism as a disease finally congealed around the middle of the twentieth century in the studies of a researcher at the Yale Center for Alcohol Studies named E.M. Jellinek.

Jellinek published influential research which appeared to confirm the disease status of alcoholism by showing that over time the condition was predictably progressive, with distinct and recognizable phases to its natural history. Jellinek’s masterwork, The Disease Concept of Alcoholism, was published in 1960. When he died in 1963, the disease concept, both as idea and work, was seen as his supreme accomplishment. Even though Jellinek invented a scientific doctorate for himself which no university ever awarded, the significance of his work remains profound. His recommendation of total abstinence remains the basis for the most effective treatments available today, including the programs at the Betty Ford Clinic and other treatment facilities and abstinence, along with the celebrated 12-step process, are the basic tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous, widely regarded as the most successful recovery program for alcoholics the world over.

Patsy Hillard, former associate director and outreach coordinator for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of the Central Mississippi Area, states that according to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual for Mental Health, “alcoholism is a disease.”

The, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) Inc. is a national non-profit organization combating alcoholism, other drug addictions and related problems through its National Office, 200 state and local affiliates and thousands of volunteers in communities throughout the nation. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of the Central Mississippi Area was established in 1949. Hugh Barkley, executive director of the NCADD of Central Mississippi said, “The treatment programs that we deal with are based on the 12-step programs that have been used by Alcoholics Anonymous for over sixty years. An alcoholic is an alcoholic; one drink is just going to trigger his mind to going back to start drinking rather than coping with life on a regular basis.”

Barkley said that one of the most significant pieces of legislation involving alcohol in Mississippi was the lowering of blood alcohol levels for the conviction of DUI cases in 2002. The law lowered the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers in the state from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. This law brought Mississippi into compliance with federal requirements passed in 2000. States that fail to lower their blood-alcohol levels risked losing millions of dollars in federal highway funds in the year 2003.

“That’s just the way we do things in Mississippi,” Barkley said. “We wait until the last or the next to the last year before the government threatens to take away funds, then we pass the law. We always procrastinate. But according to a recent report, our DUI rates have decreased, whereas in other states, such as South Carolina, they have increased. And that’s directly attributable to the new DUI law and its enforcement.”

Barkley also said that the state’s allocation of tax monies for treatment has also undergone revisions. “Back in the 70s, the legislature put a tax on hard liquor that was to be used for alcohol and drug treatment. That was true for a few years, but then the state got into a budget crunch and the Legislature saw fit to say, ‘Okay, we don’t want to earmark that money for alcohol and drug treatment, we’ll put it into the general fund along with the other funds, and we’ll allocate funds to the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, and they can decide how much they’re going to put into treatment.’”

“Basically, one out of ten people who drink in this country will become alcoholics,” Hillard said. “That’s probably world-wide as well. But the one thing that’s interesting about traffic accidents and traffic fatalities (involving alcohol) is that they are not caused by alcoholics but by people who might go out and drink more than they’re accustomed to. Most alcohol-related traffic fatalities are caused by people who are not alcoholics, not regular drinkers. One of the things we address in our prevention programs is to talk about risk factors,” Hillard explained. “Risk factors are those factors which might make a person more likely to become addicted to alcohol or any other drug. They include a family history of alcoholism or addiction or living in a place where drugs and alcohol are readily available. You can’t always move a child out of a neighborhood, but you can alert him or her to the risk factors they face.”

Barkley said that many people who are addicted to alcohol are abusive, not only to themselves, but to their family members, and this abuse is often more subtle than physical or verbal: such elements as the erosion of family finances, the upkeep of homes and compassion for others are problems spread across every social and economic level, every race and every gender.

“Alcoholism has so many facets that you can compare with other diseases,” Hillard said. “It’s treatable. The recovery rate is not what we’d like for it to be, but just because a person goes through treatment many times does not mean that we don’t hope that they might make it one day.”

Bottom line

During the holidays, law enforcement agencies across the state conduct “You Drink and Drive, You Lose” campaigns. Given the adjustment in the DUI laws that are now in accordance to federal standards, the state will have about a quarter of a million dollars at their disposal to put additional officers on the roads and to enhance patrols that are already in place, and while these efforts have reduced alcohol-related highway fatalities considerably, drinking and driving still leads to tragic consequences on a periodic basis. Drink responsibly, and always drive safely.

Daddy at the Door

My father Jess Jr. was very much a man of the moment; charismatic, spontaneous and imbued with a zest for living. Naturally, being married to such a man made my mother Barbara very happy, but it also kept her in a state of continual apprehension as to what mischief might spring into his mind at any given time.

She often told us the story of being invited to a party in Oxford at a grand home on South Lamar. Barbara was understandably nervous, not knowing the hosts, but Jess had taken great pains to assure her that as district attorney he worked with the judge and knew him well. Once they had passed under the ancient trees to the spacious porch and rang the doorbell, Jess turned to Barbara, winked, and said, “Watch this.”

“My heart just sank to my shoes,” she’d say. When the door opened, Jess walked in, raised his arms in the air, and said, “I hope you people know that we are trying to have a prayer meeting in the house down the street, and your drunken carryings-on here are disrupting our communion with the Lord God Almighty!”

This being during the time before Prohibition was lifted in Mississippi, the assembly of well-heeled Oxonians and distinguished Ole Miss academics froze. Mother said the silence was so vast you could hear traffic on the Square four blocks away, and she was about to faint when the host stuck his head out the kitchen door and said, “Jess, quit scaring the hell out of everybody, get a drink and Barbara one, too. God knows she needs it.”

Then she’d remind us, “I miss him so much.”

“Shoot him in the head!”

President Theodore Roosevelt, a hunter of note, visited Mississippi in 1902 in an attempt to bring the South into a more cordial orbit with the rest of the nation. The South was not alone in its outrage over Roosevelt having Booker T. Washington to dine en famille at the White House the preceding October, which still rankled the following November, when Roosevelt came to Mississippi on the invitation of Governor Longingo for a hunt. Bear in mind that formal hunts in those days were often orchestrated slaughters; in Europe deer were rounded up in droves and herded into an enclosure to be massacred by royalty.

So it was that when the President of the United States came to Mississippi to hunt bear, it was made certain that he would have one to shoot and either skin or mount, but the end result was an altogether different type of stuffed bear. Roosevelt hunted, yes; but he was also a conservationist, a naturalist and an outdoorsman as well as a sportsman. After the gamesmen had hunted down and beaten a bear into insensibility, they tied it to a tree and urged Teddy to shoot. He refused. The incident was the subject of a Clifford Berryman cartoon in The Washington Post in November, “Drawing the Line in Mississippi”, which depicts the bear as a cute little cub (something of a slap at the barbarous South), sparking a craze for cuddly toy bears that endures to this day.


Lakes on the Pearl

John Conway is a young professional with a wife, a son and daughter. He lives in the house he grew up in, a house that sits just over a mile from the banks of the Pearl River.

“I was a child in 1979, and our home flooded, but that was considered an extraordinary event,” he said. “These days, I consider the risk to be pretty low, I guess, though there were some houses in my neighborhood that were flooded last spring.” Conway, his wife and children enjoy living in a city with a river. They enjoy fishing and canoeing, and Conway and his son kayak on the Pearl on weekends. “But the chance for flooding is very real,” Conway said. “Living where I do, the threat is always in the back of my mind.”

His and thousands of others.

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The Pearl River makes her way from a confluence of sloughy waters in the very heart of Mississippi to the marshy outskirts of the Gulf of Mexico in a graceful 500-mile arc. Lacking the majesty of the Mississippi, the cachet of the Yazoo or the utility of the Tombigbee, the Pearl is often cast as a poor relation; but she has played a significant role in Mississippi history, not the least of which has been putting Jackson on the map. In 1821, state commissioners decided that there was no desirable location within the required 20-mile limits of the geographic center of the state for the new seat of government, so they recommended a site “above the floods” of the Pearl River. In their report to the Legislature, the commissioners recommended the location of the new capital on LeFleur’s Bluff. They also suggested that the town should be laid out in President Jefferson’s design, a checker-board plan that stretched no more than a mile westward from the crest of the bluff where the new capital building would stand.

Initially, the Pearl River served the city as one of its earliest routes to and from civilization. The 1830s were a high water mark in the role of the river as a resource and a reason for the city, but by 1845, rail traffic had been established, and then roads rolled in from all quarters of the compass. Gradually the river fell into abeyance as a platform of commerce for the burgeoning city. But soon the Pearl came to assume a different economic role in the history of Jackson; the bluff could no longer accommodate all of its citizens and buildings began to be erected upon the floodplain. Flooding along the Pearl River in the Jackson area has been a problem since the beginning of the city, but it has been especially noticeable since development has spread into the floodplain. Since then, the river and its urban tributaries have flooded different areas on a periodic basis. Major floods have been classified by their severity according to the frequency at which they are estimated to occur. The 1979 flood has been called a 100-year floodplain event. The 1983 flood was a 50-year event. And the 1991 flood was a 10-year event.  It should not pass without notice that all three of these events occurred within a 12-year period.

Reservoir spillway under construction, c. 1960
Reservoir spillway under construction, c. 1960

Ironically enough, given this catastrophe of riches in terms of water, area leaders were discussing the problems of an adequate drinking water supply for Jackson as early as 1926. One of these leaders was State Senator Mitchell Robinson who succeeded in obtaining a flood control and navigability study from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The study proved unfavorable, but Robinson was persistent. Some dismissed his idea of a dam north of Jackson on the Pearl to provide water and recreation for the city as “Mitch’s ditch,” others warmed to the idea. By 1955, Jackson’s water consumption had increased in excess of five times the rate of 1935 and pollution in the Pearl was a mounting problem. The labyrinth of legal and legislative problems and other obstacles that stood in the way of the construction of the Ross Barnett Reservoir are history now, and the reservoir is a pivotal element in the life of the city. But the Reservoir never was really designed for flood control; it was primarily constructed to create a water supply and to provide recreation. Despite that, the reservoir, because of its very nature as an impoundment of water, plays a crucial role in flood control in the lower river basin. According to Kenneth Griffin, general manager of the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District, the Ross Barnett Reservoir presents special problems in that area.

“One of the challenges, and one of the reasons this reservoir is so difficult to manage for flood control is that you have a huge watershed for this size river, this size of control structure,” Griffin said. “Regrettably, even with perfect hindsight, all you can do is to handle something like a 15- or 20-year event, depending upon when it comes. Certainly you can’t handle a hundred-hear or five-hundred year event,” Griffin added. “1979 was a really terrible flood, and we managed that one with very little in the way of rain gauges and stream gauges. We had manual rain gauges, cooperators that would simply call in the precipitation and we did not have any sophisticated software at that time. And even then, I think the people did a very good job, came very close to doing the best job possible.”

But even in the case of reservoirs that are designed to control flooding, the use of impoundments for this purpose has been discredited because of their downstream (and upstream) impact. Flood control reservoirs are set at a specific area in a drainage system to control flooding in an immediate area, but reservoirs impact rivers both above and below their dams. The LeFleur Lakes project is such an impoundment proposal intended to solve the flooding problems in the Jackson area in such a manner that “the attractiveness and growth potential of the metropolitan area would also be enhanced.” The proposal states that flood levels would be permanently lowered in the Jackson-to-Byram area by providing a better flow course for the passage of water and by reducing the rate of flow in the river and envisions the creation of a vital new waterfront district for the Jackson Metropolitan area.

Under the LeFleur Lakes proposal, large amounts of sand from beneath the numerous railroad and highway structures south of downtown Jackson would be excavated. This would be needed in order to provide the proper flow course through this area of the river. The study proposal maintains that existing levees and bridges presently block the river’s flow and back water up into Jackson homes and businesses. To accommodate the excavated material, the Flowood levee would be moved to the east and the dredged material would then be put in the middle of the newly formed lake. This would create a 600-acre island opposite downtown Jackson. North of Lakeland the dredged material would be placed on the east side of the newly formed lake. The newly-created land, an artificial island in the middle of the Pearl near where an extended High Street would stretch, would be accessed by bridges and by constructing interchanges of parkways and city streets over it and along the entire length of the 3000 acre lake. The LeFleur Lakes proposal states that “many roads and bridges are needed at this time to alleviate the metropolitan area’s traffic congestion,” and that both the traffic and flooding problems can be solved simultaneously and at less cost than plans for previous flood control, roads and bridges. The proposal also says that all the structures that flooded in the 1979 flood should be protected from another 100-year flood by the new lake and the improved reservoir discharge procedure. Additionally, the plan would provide that surveying be conducted in order to determine what structures exist in the various flood prone areas that would not be protected from a so-called 100-year flood. If any structures exist that need protection, auxiliary plans would be considered and, if warranted, additional protection would be extended to those structures.

The LeFleur Lakes plan would accelerate the flow course for the river by removing the trees from the very lowest level of the river floodplain (the river bottom land). This level would then be lowered another 5 feet with dredges and other earth-moving equipment, and then the entire 11-mile river course opposite Jackson would be made into a permanent lake. This lake would be necessary to prevent the redistribution of sand and silt and to prevent the regrowth of trees in the river flow course.  Naturally, the Ross Barnett Reservoir would play a key role in the project’s success. According to Griffin, “The LeFleur Lakes plan includes two components. Obviously, the lakes themselves are proposed. But the other half of the plan involves some major operational plans in how the (current) reservoir is operated, specifically how the gates are operated.” LeFleur Lakes admits to other drawbacks, as well.  For instance, under the proposal, levels in the Ross Barnett Reservoir, on two or three occasions each year, over a period of a day and a half, will fall one foot then rise again to their original level. According to the original Two Lakes website (now defunct), “Once every 25 years they (“Reservoir people”) would be warned to untie moorings and move boats because the level will be taken down below 295 feet. On the positive side, they would enjoy an extra one half to one foot of water in their boat slips” and “would be compensated by knowing that two thousand of their neighbors will never have to worry about their homes and businesses flooding again.”  In addition, metal buildings at very low elevations would not be protected from another 1979 flood, but they would be compensated by “having protection from a 100-year flood on structures that probably will not last 100 years.” People who own land and camps on the river south of Jackson would experience “one or two” river bottom floods that they would not have had otherwise, but they would be compensated by the assurance that the new reservoir would have the capacity to take one foot of elevation off of every major flood that could occur in the area. “One foot off of the 1979 flood would have prevented much of the flooding that these people’s neighbors suffered in 1979.”

Supporters of LeFleur Lakes cite the need some sort of flood control and the availability of direct funding for a local agency to undertake the project. Federal commitment to flood control in the Jackson area does exist; otherwise the Corps would not have sought funding for a more thorough and inclusive system of levees, a proposal now called the Comprehensive Levee System of 1996. In April, 1988 the Pearl River Basin Development District asked the Corps of Engineers to initiate alternative flood control studies. The Corps received authorization and funding in February 1989. Federal funds were used for the reconnaissance study which was completed in June 1990. The District agreed to serve as local sponsor for the study for the Jackson Metro area, which took 54 months to complete and cost $3 million. The District provided one-half of this amount in cash and in-kind contributions. A feasibility cost-sharing agreement was signed in September 1991, and feasibility studies were initiated in October of the same year.

The Pearl River Feasibility Flood Control Study (a.k.a. the Comprehensive Levee Plan) was completed by the Corps of Engineers in February 1996. The Corps recommended the construction of 21 miles of new levees at a cost of $122 million. The local sponsor would be required to provide $38 million for the acquisition of land, easements, rights-of-way, relocations and disposal areas. Legislation enabling the Pearl River Basin Development District to serve as the local sponsor for the Flood Control Project was defeated in the 1995 and 1996 sessions of the Mississippi Legislature.  The plan also included $30 million worth of recreation amenities and improvements, most of which would have been cost shared. Even before then, in 1984, the Corps also proposed a dry dam that would catch heavy flows from extreme rainfall events in the upper basin, events similar to those which caused the ’79 and ’83 floods. Called the Shoccoe Dam to be installed near Carthage, it was planned at a cost of $80.1 million ($24 million shared). It was identified by the Corps of Engineers as the most comprehensive flood control project for the Pearl Basin. But in October, 1984, the Mississippi House of Representatives defeated a bill authorizing the District to serve as the local sponsor for Shoccoe.  Local opposition killed the funding measure, but many people still consider Shoccoe to be the best plan for flood control in the middle reaches of the Pearl.

Everybody has their favorite proposals. “As far as we know, the Comprehensive Levee System (proposed by the Corps) is still viable, but we’ll have to evaluate it again,” Walker said. “We will have to see if the levee alignment is still in place, and we’ll have to see if any development has gotten in the alignment and we’ll have to adjust it.”

“What we’re looking at are the levees and LeFleur Lakes. It’s probable that LeFleur Lakes might turn out different than what it is now. The final result might be some combination of lakes and the levee system. We have several of what we call milestones that we’ll reach as we go through the study. We’ll discuss these with the sponsors, since these will be decision points where we’ll decide whether we need to go forward or not. If we get to the point that something showed up as a “show-stopper,” we would have to evaluate with the Levee Board at that time whether we want to proceed with that plan or do something else. But we could not proceed without them being agreeable to that. There is a consensus that something needs to be done, but the question is what the plan is on how to control it. Public opinion is such that something is needed to control flooding, but we don’t know what the plan is. As to other proposals, as we go through the process, a sponsor will have to sponsor a study for other alternatives. With the proper sponsorship, other plans could be submitted.”

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The Pearl River Basin covers an area of about 7,800 square miles, comprising about 16 per cent of the state as a whole. From Neshoba County, the river flows southwesterly, eventually forming the boundary between Louisiana and Mississippi in the southern part of the basin and discharging into the Gulf of Mexico just north of New Orleans. Before the Pearl reaches the Gulf from Jackson, it still traverses some two hundred plus miles, and the lands along the lower river have already felt the impacts of impoundment and flood control in the Jackson Metro area. One of the most serious effects is that of bank erosion, which has been a crucial and continual problem since the development of the state. Andrew Whitehurst, a wildlife ecologist with the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, is the author of the newly-published Mississippi Streamside Handbook, available as a free download from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks website. Whitehurst said that rivers are able to carry a great amount of sediment. But when a stream goes into a reservoir, it slows down and the energy of the water is dissipated. Much of the suspended material it carries drops out, and the water leaves the reservoir sediment-starved.

“A normal river will gather a suspended load from its bed and from whatever flows in from its tributaries and through normal bank erosion and moving sand bars around,” Whitehurst said. “Our river (the Pearl) is altered. The fact that the discharges can be abruptly stopped after a flood event makes the levels go up and down, so the banks become saturated during floods and when the water is quickly shut off and the level of the river channel drops, the banks can slough or heave.” Whitehurst points out that there are three well-known diadromous (migratory salt-to-freshwater) species that will be impacted by the dams: the American eel, the Alabama shad and the Gulf sturgeon. The maritime connection of the Pearl is another crucial element when flood control anywhere along the river is under consideration, since the wetlands that lie near the mouth of the Pearl are important to the seafood industries along the central Gulf.  In a public hearing in Biloxi on March 11, coastal residents expressed concerns that LeFleur Lakes would damage the Coast, especially in terms of the area’s seafood industry. Gulf citizens were particularly worried that the project would reduce the amount of fresh water flowing into the Mississippi Sound, degrading its oyster beds and shrimp population.  Lauren Thompson, of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said, “Our concern is with reduced or increased salinity as well as with sediment and nutrient transport down the Pearl River. The reduced flow of nutrients and sediments down the Pearl can change the environmental conditions in the Mississippi Sound, affecting salinity and water quality.

“So it could have a negative impact on oysters, shrimp, blue crabs and finfish. Oysters, which can’t move, have a narrow salinity band. If the salinity is too high, predators come in; if the salinity is too low, the oysters close up, and if they stay closed for an extended period of time, they die.” Since the Pearl empties into the Gulf just north of New Orleans, the State of Louisiana is also keeping an eye on flood control along the river, as it will impact their seafood industry as well as salinity levels in LakePontchartrain.

The Pearl River levee system.

Apart from the Reservoir, flood control in the Jackson area is also managed by a system of levees built by the Corps of Engineers in the 1960s. These levees serve as buffers for the floodwaters and also funnel the flood downstream. Aside from emergency situations, the levees are largely maintained by local interests. Periodic inspections of maintenance are made by personnel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and from local levee and drainage districts, in this case the Rankin Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District, also known locally as the Levee Board.  This board has been given broad powers to deal with flood control along the Pearl River in Rankin and Hinds Counties. The board is made up of the mayors of Richland, Pearl, Jackson and Flowood as well as the head of the Mississippi Development Authority, Leland Speed, in his role as representative of the Mississippi State Fair Commission. Robert Stockett Jr. represents Hinds County, and the chair, Billy Orr, represents Rankin County. The board itself is funded by the Boards of Supervisors of Rankin and Hinds Counties.

There are fourteen miles of levees in the Jackson area that protect flood lands in Flowood, practically all of Pearl and those in Richland. They also protect those lands below the bluff around the fairgrounds on the Hinds County side of the river. The levee board has taxing power on property that is protected by the levees. If you own a business or property that is protected by a levee, then you are taxed by the Board to help pay for the maintenance of the levees as well as pump maintenance and levee patrols during flood times. The tax revenue brought in by the Board totals less than a half million dollars. The Corps and the Levee Board have agreed to initiate a three-year, $2.8 million feasibility study that will be limited to updating the cost of the 1996 levee plan and a complete analysis of the LeFleur Lakes Plan. “We don’t have a set schedule for reviewing the progress of the analysis,” Orr said, “We have other things to do, but the Corps will be on it daily and we’ll keep up with it very often. We do keep up to date on it, and it is our responsibility to make sure it goes right. Whatever the requirements are as these studies go along, we will meet as often as necessary.” Orr said that they follow the Corps’s recommendations in matters of maintaining the levees and that while some people might claim that they are more partial to one flood control plan over the other, “We will be partial to LeFleur Lakes only when it has been studied and it has been proven that it can do the job.”

The decision to put the LeFleur Lakes Plan in the hands of the Levee Board was made by the three county governments of Rankin, Hinds and Madison Counties as well as the governing bodies of eleven cities in the three county areas. Purportedly, they will expand the district and build some version of the project. The levees will be incorporated into the LeFleur Lakes strategy, since the levees were part of the original “Two Lakes” plan.  According to Gary Walker, project manager for the Corps of Engineers, “The EIS (environment impact statement) draft (for LeFleur Lakes) is scheduled for October, 2005 and it will take about six months after that for the final. The recommendation will be a joint process between us and the sponsor,” Walker said. “It will be a plan we both can agree on, it will be a joint recommendation between us and the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District. We’re doing a full evaluation and the study will determine how we assess the project. We’re not going to make any pre-determined notions. The study will speak for itself.”

As to alternatives to LeFleur Lakes and the comprehensive levee plans, no others are under consideration, since Walker said that the Corps can’t recommend anything without a sponsor. But “assuming we went through the process and found a feasible plan and a sponsor, yes, we could approve (an alternative).”

“People ask how long it will be before a flood control plan will be put into place,” Orr said. “But we don’t know how long it will take. The study itself is going to take two and a half years. After that, it would be left up to funds that are available, and this project (LeFleur Lakes) is big. Now, it might not come to anything, because environmental concerns might knock it down or something else like public sentiment or lack of funding might come into play. The only thing I can say is that this board would like for the LeFleur Lakes project to be a reality if it does the job in controlling flooding. The only thing we’re interested in is flooding. Economic development and all the other factors do not interest us. Our job is flood control, and if this project does not meet the required specifications, it will be gone. I’m sure there’s room for modification,” Orr said. “With all the study and money going into this, we hope something will come out of it that will work. The only thing for sure is that Rankin and Hinds Counties need some flood control assistance somewhere. I was head of the Fair Commission in 1979 during the Easter Flood and we lost over $2.5 million, and that’s a lot of money.”

* * * * * * * * * *

In the final analysis, until people begin to perceive of the Pearl as a resource rather than as an obstacle, LeFleur Lakes, or some similar project involving development along the river that will control flooding and perhaps create revenue, will continue to receive a lot of support in the Jackson Metro area. But we do have other choices. Metro Jackson can either preserve the riverfront with options that have the potential to appeal to a younger, more aggressive entrepreneurial population while continuing to promote more downtown development, or the city can align itself with political and business leaders who seek to develop the riverfront at great expense and create a new district that will in all likelihood fail within the next decade or so, benefiting nobody save those who developed (or dredged up) the property in the first place. Supporters say the LeFleur Lakes idea is just a different approach from the levees, one which has the economic development and recreational components that levees just don’t have. They also cite the support of local governments, state agencies and the congressional delegation. John McGowan, the Jackson entrepreneur who originally conceived of the LeFleur Lakes (then called Two Lakes) plan, declined to comment on the evaluation in a telephone interview and deferred comments on the project to the Levee Board.

Detractors of LeFleur Lakes tend to focus on the negative environmental impact the project will have, but not necessarily in the sense that it will endanger already threatened species of wildlife. These detractors cite numerous studies showing that in addition to education and other quality-of-life issues, aesthetics and recreation are important to young entrepreneurs, especially younger business owners who are looking to relocate. They point out that LeFleur Lakes is going to destroy the wetlands and natural resources that are in the corridor, the same resources that in other parts of the country, smaller urban areas use to provide green space for recreational opportunities that appeal to people oriented towards activities carried out in natural settings, like hiking, biking, jogging and nature viewing.

Pearl River swampland; photo by Charlie Brenner

These critics feel that the LeFleur Lakes project is simply not progressive enough and does not address the changing demographics and mindset of the 21st century South. In this context, the controversy surrounding LeFleur Lakes becomes a conflict of perception about the way Jackson should move, about the best venues that the city can take in order to become a more vibrant community rather than a battle between tree cutters and tree huggers.  As an alternative to both LeFleur Lakes and the comprehensive levee system (which unlike LeFleur Lakes included green space facilities), proponents of green space, who include local businessmen as well as conservationists, are proposing a greenway that will transform what is now a denuded floodplain into an area that will feature hiking, biking and jogging trails, parks with sports fields and playgrounds, a scenic river corridor for boating as well as wilderness areas. Jackson geologist Dan Hill is among those who maintain that the greenway proposal has the potential to increase city revenue by attracting young professionals and entrepreneurs who look for such things as aesthetics and outdoor recreational activities when seeking to relocate.  “The Levee Board has denuded the area between the levees to improve the convenience of the flood waters out of the flood zone,” Hill said. “The Levee Board maintains the levees and the floodways such as the areas at Lakeland and I-20. They clear the floodways rather than do any aesthetic features and it’s ugly.”

“When you clear the trees away from the river, there are no roots to hold the banks,” Hill said. “The reason they clear the trees is that those trees and vegetation create a drag on the water going through, so what they do is straighten up and dredge the channel as it has been along I-55. That improves the passage of water. One of the things that the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks didn’t like was the clearings in the 1996 plan, which would have increased the number of clearings. It’s ugly; it looks like a moonscape going across I-20. And this creates a negative impression about Jackson.”

The greenway proposal is problematic because it can’t control flooding along the river and has limited appeal for those who are unaccustomed to more nature-oriented forms of activity (biking, hiking, kayaking, etc.) and are more acclimated to the hustle and bustle of a more people-oriented environment; shopping malls, for instance.  But the environmental issues are still crucial. Water quality is a primary concern. According to Jackson businessman Jerry Litton, “If you look at the area that will be draining into LeFleur Lakes and look at the trash and debris that flushes from the city every time we have a rain, that is what the water in those lakes is going to look like.”

“Debris will collect on the edges of the lake, or collect on drifts that are out in the open or on the edges of the (proposed) island,” Litton said. “It’s going to be there, and somebody’s going to have to float around in a boat in a net and dredge it out, all of the stuff that comes down from the spillway itself, plus what flushes out of the creeks in the city.” Nonpoint pollution is also a consideration. Nonpoint pollution is source pollution, or “polluted runoff,” created when rain, irrigation and other water sources run over the land, picking up pollutants and transporting them to local water bodies. You’re going to hold water there in a large volume, and you’re going to have all the nonpoint pollutants that come from the city. Nonpoint sources are parking lots and roadways and fields. Then what about all the motor oil, paint and paint thinners that people won’t take the time to take to the toxic waste centers? It’s being poured down storm drains.”

Hill agrees. “The shallowness of the proposed reservoirs (LeFleur Lakes) is such that water temperature is going to heat up and that’s going to affect water quality. Not only that, but when they impound the lake they’re going to flood one landfill that I know of, and there’s probably a second landfill. I found out when they tore down the old Baptist hospital, they put the asbestos from that in a fill that would be flooded.”  Sewer mains are another concern for the LeFleur Lakes project. Broken sewer mains would flow directly into the lake from the city. One such sewer is the West Main Intercept, which drains north Jackson and travels through the floodway. The construction of a lake in the floodplain opposite Jackson would put that sewer main underneath the lake itself. Environmental issues aside, when it comes to local sentiment, the LeFleur Lakes proposal appeals to a genuine need for the people of Jackson to feel as if they are living in a vibrant, growing community that is making changes and improvements. In addition to the attractions of proposed flood control and potential economic benefits, LeFleur Lakes has come to represent an alternative to apparently ineffective downtown development. Granted, LeFleur Lakes appeals more to the outlying metro area than it does to the city itself; on the surface, the project has much greater appeal for those sections of Ridgeland, Hinds and Rankin Counties between the spillway and Byram, but it still has its supporters in the city itself, not the least of which is former Jackson mayor Harvey Johnson Jr.

“The continuing flooding we experience nearly every year undeniably demonstrates that we very much need a comprehensive flood protection plan,” Johnson said. “As a member of the Rankin-Hinds Levee Board, I work closely with mayors from Rankin County and other board members to address ongoing flood control measures.”

“The public has rallied around the LeFleur Lakes project as an alternative to levees. The City of Jackson has gone on record as being in support of the LeFleur Lakes project, and we continue to work closely with federal, state and other local authorities to come up with the right answer to solve our problems with floods. We will continue to evaluate the LeFleur Lakes proposal as it evolves while we decide the best ways to provide flood control,” Johnson added.

But according to Matthew Dalbey, assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Jackson State University, “From a physical planning point or perspective, when you have an interstate between a new development project and downtown, I don’t see how that is going to help downtown. As a matter of fact, I think it’s going to make downtown dead. It’s just too big of a separation; it’s just like any other type of leap-frog development or urban sprawl. The people who argue for this will say that any new development within the boundaries of the city will provide a positive economic impact, but the issue remains that the new development will be separate from the old development. It will kill downtown because of the separation. I think that there’s a tendency to support new development by local people, so for instance you can get a premium rate for something new whether it’s strategically located or not. In other words, there’s nothing new downtown, so people aren’t investing downtown, but take the Fondren Corner building; it’s a redone building in an area that had formerly been in decline,” Dalbey said. “But the new investment in that place has been such that they can get a premium on the rents there. As a matter of fact, Fondren is in a rebound, and people like being there.”

Of course, it’s questionable whether LeFleur Lakes, or any such new development district will improve the local economy. Some people are of the opinion that the city has extended itself already and that further development is superfluous; after all, the state economy is drawing back, consolidating itself and trimming edges, so it makes sense that the capital city should follow suit.  Under scrutiny, LeFleur Lakes appears to be an antiquated development concept that creates more problems both in Jackson and downstream than it solves. Jackson deserves a solution to flooding that is effective and progressive, one that focuses on enduring issues rather than quick-fix alternatives.  We need protect ourselves, but we need to take care of our river, too; after all, she’s why we’re here in the first place.

A Certain Justice: Faulkner, Mitford and McGee

Best known for her work The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford was a British aristocrat, writer and political activist who came to Mississippi in 1951 to publicize the unjust execution of Willie McGee, a black man from Laurel who was sentenced to death in 1945 for the rape of Willette Hawkins, a white housewife. McGee’s legal case became a cause célèbre. William Faulkner wrote a letter insisting the case against McGee was unproven, and Mitford sought him out in her effort to rally support against a travesty of justice that many find has striking similarities to the trial Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird nine years later. This excerpt is from Mitford’s memoir A Fine Old Conflict.

‘We had already overstayed our time in Mississippi. The four weeks allotted for the trip stretched into five, as we did not wish it to appear we had been chased out by the Jackson Daily News. But we decided we could not leave the state without attempting to see Mississippi’s most (indeed its only) illustrious resident, William Faulkner. The reserves having drifted back to their respective homes, it was the original four of us who drove down to Oxford. We asked a gangling, snaggle-toothed white boy for directions to Faulkner’s house. “Down the road a piece, past the weepin’ willa tree,” was his response, which I took as augury of our arrival in authentic Faulkner country. We turned through a cast-iron gate into a long avenue of desiccated trees leading to a large, run-down plantation-style house, its antebellum pillars covered with grayish moss. Through the window we saw Faulkner, a small man in a brown velvet smoking jacket, pacing up and down, apparently dictating to a secretary. We gingerly approached and rang the front doorbell. Faulkner himself came to the door, and when we explained the reason for our visit, greeted us most cordially, invited us in, and held forth on the McGee case for a good two hours. Faulkner spoke much as he wrote, in convoluted paragraphs with a sort of murky eloquence. I was desperately trying to take down everything he said in my notebook, and frequently got lost as he expatiated on his favorite themes: sex, race, and violence.

The Willie McGee case, compounded of all three, was a subject he seemed to savor with much relish; it could have been the central episode in one of his short stories. Later it was my job to edit down his rambling monologue as a brief press release to be issued by our national office. He said the McGee case was an outrage and it was good we had come. He cautioned us that many people down here don’t pay much attention to law and justice, don’t go by the facts. He said in this case they are giving obeisance to a fetish of long standing. He expressed fear for McGee’s safety in jail. When we left he wished us good luck. William Patterson was jubilant when I telephoned to tell him of our interview with Faulkner. It was a major break- through, he said. The release would certainly be picked up by the wire services and flashed around the world! But he insisted we show it to Faulkner and ask him to initial it, for fear that pressure from his Mississippi compatriots might later induce him to repudiate it. This time I drove alone past the weepin’ willa tree to find Faulkner in dungarees and hip boots, up to his knees in dank manure, working alongside one of his black farmhands. I showed him the release and explained why I had come: “Mr. Patterson thought I should ask you to sign this, for fear you might later repudiate it.” He read it through, initialed it, and as he handed it back murmured softly, as though speaking to himself, “I think McGee and the woman should both be destroyed.” “Oh don’t let’s put that in,” said I, and clutching the precious document made a dash for my car. One can only conclude that Faulkner gave expression, in his own distinctive voice, to the deep-seated schizophrenia then endemic among white liberals and racial moderates of the region.’