Eagle Lake won’t be forced lower

Published 11:45 am Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jim Vantrease can usually walk to the end of his piers behind his Belle Island Drive home on Eagle Lake.

As the lake rose in May to save the community’s lone line of protection against the raging Mississippi River, he saw less of it and more of his neighbors’ jetties and boathouses — up close.

“When the water was up, there were two big, long, chunks of pier that was in my backyard,” he said. “They weren’t mine. I had sections of debris inside my fence.”

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Vantrease, whose memories of the oxbow lake go back “to when it connected to the river,” wants to clean up and rescue what’s left of his piece of paradise in relative comfort.

“I don’t want to be standing in water while doing it,” he said. “You don’t want it down to where there’s no water out there. You want it 55 or 60 feet, something like that would help so that I get everything out of the way.”

A half-dozen state and government agencies aren’t likely to heed his wish, based on closed-door talks Tuesday.

Levels on Eagle Lake will be lowered to its ideal late-summer stage by early August — and no lower, officials said following about 90 minutes of electronic presentations at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District offices.

“Right now, we’re just going to let it go on its normal routine,” District 2 Supervisor William Banks said after he and District 4 Supervisor Bill Lauderdale emerged from the session with engineers and state biologists from Mississippi and Louisiana, a meeting intended not to make firm decisions, but to share information.

“The purpose of the meeting was to take a look at the biological reasons for possibly lowering the lake,” Corps spokesman Kavanaugh Breazeale said.

The lake was at 81.6 feet today, 0.4 higher than Tuesday. Levels have been elevated since April 30, when the Corps began closing Muddy Bayou Control Structure to flood the lake about 13 feet above normal to ease water pressure on the mainline Mississippi River levee at Buck Chute, where sand boils were enclosed during the run-up to the river’s record-breaking crest in Vicksburg at 57.1 feet May 19, 14.1 feet above flood stage. The lake has fallen steadily this month since gates on the structure began to lift July 7 after flooding on the Missouri River delayed the process about two weeks.

The ideal stage on the oxbow lake from mid-March through early September is 76.9 feet, a mark that has risen 1.9 feet since a master agreement for lake water control was signed in 1977 by six state and local government entities — the Corps, Warren County, Madison Parish, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In recent years, stages have been lowered to 75 feet during the winter. Operation of the structure is controlled by MDWFP, accompanied by a representative of the Corps, as per the agreement.

Corps hydraulics experts believe the customary seasonal mark could be reached sooner than Aug. 18, the date most publicized by the Corps for ending the flood control process that has closed the lake to boats since early May.

Based on daily drops of four-tenths of a foot, the mark “should come a little quicker,” depending on rainfall and river stages, said Wayland Hill, chief civil engineer in the Vicksburg District’s Water Control Division.

Changing current plans to stop emptying water when stages hit 76.9 feet requires a recommendation from the wildlife agencies, Banks said. Both said Warren County isn’t too inclined to step in.

“Unless we have a whole bunch of people ask the board to lower it, they’ll let the plan flow just like it is,” Banks said.

The Corps and federal wildlife management biologists presented the group with potential impacts on fish population and on noxious weeds, said Lauderdale, who said he attended the information-gathering session due to interests in long-held family property in the northwest Warren County community. He said biologists found lower water could mean fewer weeds on the lake bed than what was killed by the extra water if they’re exposed to a cold winter, which he termed as “the only thing I heard that was actually beneficial” to a lower-than-normal stage.

“They said half the time, there wouldn’t be enough water from Steele Bayou to get water back into Eagle Lake to get it filled up for the spring,” Lauderdale said. “Which would cut out a lot of recreational fishing.”

Vantrease had heard opinions on both sides of the argument — lower the lake and clean up faster. Lower the lake and lose the summertime weekenders and the lake’s appeal. In the short term, he just wants to see what he’s lost.

“It would be so much easier if it was down a little bit lower,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that don’t want to do it, but then again there’s a lot of people that do. Just seems like they just really haven’t talked to everybody.”