St. Catherine Creek study continues

Published 12:02 am Sunday, August 7, 2011

The afternoon air is hot and still on St. Catherine Creek in Natchez, where rusty fishhooks dangle from abandoned trout lines that sway in the current and forgotten litter floats slowly downstream.

It’s been weeks now since spring floods urged the Mississippi River into the creek, pushing in fishermen, a hundred empty bottles of motor oil and Gatorade, and a mile-long carpet of green duckweed.

Jeff Knight is careful to avoid the sharp ends of the left-over tackle as he pilots his small aluminum boat down the creek, scattering sunbathing turtles from a thousand floating logs and prompting the invasive Silver Carp to leave the water in short, arched flights of alarm. He steers away from all hazards, manmade and natural, protecting a team of conservationists from the Natural Resources Conservation Service who sit before him in the craft, craning their necks port and starboard to see what six weeks of flooding has done to a lifetime of erosion control projects designed to stop the creek from swallowing its banks.

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A few miles upstream, Knight kills the motor and floats beneath the towering banks for an earnest discussion with the team. Here, St. Catherine Creek’s southern slopes have been gutted to a sheer vertical rise of loose mud and exposed tree roots. Fallen pines lay over into the creek after 40-foot tumbles from the top, and the high point of the flood is clearly visible in a deep gash that runs the length of the bank, daring buried utilities and back yards to plunge downward.

Even as the group talks, another patch of red earth gives way and splashes down into the dark waters behind them.

“This erosion is incredible, and it’s nothing compared to what you’ll see when the water goes down all the way,” said Knight, a civil engineer and founding principal of Clinton-based engineering firm WGK, Inc.

Knight points out the previous erosion control projects along the way, most of which remain submerged except for the top edges of gray rocks pressed against the banks to help hold them in place. Adams County and the City of Natchez have spent more than $13 million on erosion control projects over the last 18 years, forced to move underground infrastructure back and away from the reaches of the creek. But the waters continue to feed on the earth, and when its depth returns to normal, it will be worse.

The options for St. Catherine Creek are quite clear, Knight said — continue to lay millions of local, state and federal tax dollars down on the banks, or undertake an old, ambitious plan to dam up the creek. As the engineer for the St. Catherine Creek Project Committee, an appointed body lobbying for the installation of dams and the development of the creek into a series of small lakes, he favors the second option, and he’s brought the conservationists here to try to convince them as well.

“Putting in more rip-rap isn’t going to stop it,” Knight said. “We’ll always be fighting erosion on this creek, all year, every year.”

The St. Catherine Creek Lakes Project, developed in Natchez in the late 1970s and refined by WGK, Inc., calls for the construction of a series of weirs — low-lying dams that allow water to spill over their tops — that will transform the creek into five small lakes beginning at its headwaters in Adams County and continuing through Natchez to its mouth at the Mississippi River. The lakes would expand the creek to 1,000 feet in width at its widest point, slowing the water’s march and halting its powers of erosion.

But to the committee, the lakes project would do much, much more for the city than simply hold up the dirt. An engineering report on the project estimates it would create approximately six miles of shoreline and 1,420 acres of waterfront property, property that Natchez attorney and committee member Brent Bourland sees as the future home of restaurants, resorts, outdoor shops, rental businesses and prime waterfront real estate.

“The quality of life would be enhanced significantly,” said Bourland, who envisioned the project after a kayaking trip down the creek in the late 1970s. “It would affect the whole city. It gives the general community access to water and recreation, and that’s big.”

St. Catherine Creek Project Committee Tony Byrne, a former mayor and the man who’s pushed the project along for 30 years, believes the lakes would flourish as soon as they were opened. The state’s tourism-driven economy is already set up to make such an investment pay off, he said, and the lakes project would tie into local well-visited places like the Natchez Trail System, the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians and historic downtown Natchez.

“Tourism is big in Mississippi and No. 1 in Natchez,” he said. “We just need the money to make this project shovel-ready.”

Money is the commission’s greatest obstacle. Approximately $26 million is needed to build the first two weirs, a total that would have to come from Congress and be appropriated, most likely, to the NRCS. While the committee continues to publicize and aggressively pursue funding for the project — even inviting Sen. Roger Wicker’s staff onto the creek in kayaks — the “no pork” attitude in Washington, D.C., has put the project on hold.

“It’s pork if it’s your project, but if it’s mine it’s needed in my community,” Byrne said. “They’re going to learn that pretty quick in Washington.”

If funding for the St. Catherine Creek Lakes Project is made available, lawmakers would likely call the NRCS for details before approving the money. Acting State Conservationist Al Garner floated down the creek on Knight’s boat last Friday to study the conditions in person. While it’s not his place to side with or against the project, he did rule out one alternative.

“It would be too expensive to come in here and riprap the entire channel,” he said. “It’s either (the lakes project) or keep on working on it. From what we’ve seen so far, (the project) looks like it has merit.”

In the meantime, local officials are preparing for the possibility of more quick-fixes as the flood waters in St. Catherine Creek drop off.

“You’re always going to have problems with the creek. There’s a lot of neighborhoods along the creek and when the river comes up or we get heavy rains, some of these homes are in danger,” said District One Supervisor Mike Lazarus. “You may have $500,000 worth of projects this year and $50,000 next year. You just don’t know.”

As the flood waters recede and local officials prepare to inspect the creek for new damage, the committee remains hopeful. Progress is being made as congressional aides tour the creek, publicity is increased and tangible numbers emerge from engineering reports, and the project is as close as it’s ever been, Byrne said.

“We’ve got the engineering that says it can be done,” he said. “Now we have something that says it can work, and here’s how much it costs. Before that, we just believed it would work, and no one would believe us.”