Comment to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on 2023 Scoping for the Pearl River Basin, MS, Federal Flood Risk Management Project, Rankin and Hinds Co.
Prof. Grant S. McCall, Ph.D.
Executive Director and Chief Research Scientist
Center for Human-Environmental Research
Dept. of Anthropology
Dear Colonel Klein,
My comments pertain to the Pearl River Basin Flood Risk Management Project “Alternative C,” also known as the “One Lake” plan. This alternative would involve channel dredging and damming a significant portion of the Pearl River in Hinds and Rankin Counties, Mississippi. Others will no doubt raise concerns about the ecological impacts of this project on fisheries as well as a range of rare and/or endangered plant and animal species, and the delicate ecosystems in which they live. We share those concerns acutely. However, the focus of our comment is on the social and economic impacts of Alternative C for the residents of the lower Pearl River drainage in southern Mississippi and southeast Louisiana.
The Pearl River and its watershed are unique in the southeastern Gulf Coast region in being relatively untouched by large-scale human structural interventions. Similarly, and perhaps consequently, the lower Pearl River basin and its coastal endpoint, Lake Borgne, are characterized by a long tradition of small, independent communities with both economic and social systems based around resources related to the river—especially subsistence and small-scale commercial fishing.
First of all, to say that the social and economic systems of rural communities in the lower Pearl River basin and Lake Borgne have been understudied is a major understatement. Much of this has previously been carried out in relation to previous proposed projects in the basin and has been an afterthought to cultural resource management assessments having to do mainly with archaeological sites. (As a professional archaeologist with an active research project on the Pearl River Island, that aspect of the impact of Alternative C concerns me, as well.) Though a few ethnographic films and coffee table books have been made about the houseboat communities of places like the Honey Island Swamp and that sort of thing, virtually no systematic ethnographic assessment has been made concerning the organizations of socioeconomic systems among communities in Pearl River basin in relation to the resources and ecosystem services provided by the river and its adjacent coastal regions.
My previous anthropological experience in southeast Louisiana suggests that even minor impacts to the ecosystems and fisheries of the lower Pearl River basin and its adjacent coast could have huge consequences for the social and economic systems of fishing communities—or even communities for whom informal subsistence-level fishing activities are important. Fishing communities tend to be characterized by close-knit social relations underpinned by the informal exchange of economic commodities of which fish constitute a key resource. Though often not sold in a marketplace or necessarily reported through formal fisheries management channels, small communities on waterways like the Pearl River and its adjacent coastline catch and exchange a great deal of seafood, which directly underpins social systems of reciprocity and broader cultural outlooks of generosity and inclusiveness. Deleterious impacts on fisheries would doubtless negatively impact fishing communities in as-of-yet unforeseen vectors.
My point is that any environmental impact statement for such a project can’t be limited to the threats posed for endangered species like the Ringed Sawback Turtle—important though that may be. Fishing communities on the lower Pearl River and its adjacent coastline are themselves an endangered species, and even seemingly minor impacts on waterflow, sediment and nutrient load, pollution, and salinity may pose existential threats.
The lower Pearl River basin of southern Mississippi and southeast Louisiana is one of America’s oldest and most distinctive regions in terms of human cultural adaptations, and everything about this priceless heritage is derived from fishing waters fed by the Pearl River watershed. There is a moral imperative here to make a thorough ethnographic exploration of the impacts of Alternative C in the formulation of any subsequent environmental impact statement. The fact that so little is known about the ethnography of this antique and unique region is not necessarily U.S.A.C.E.’s fault. Yet, U.S.A.C.E. holds a legal and moral obligation to learn much more about this set of issues before either publishing an environmental impact statement or proceeding with the Alternative C project itself.
Grant S. McCall