The Chickasawhay River: A Small Mississippi Stream vs. the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Author(s): Buck, J.; Orsi, T.; Rasmussen, M.; Newcomb, A.; Carter, G.

There has been recent interest in improving the recreational value of the Chickasawhay River in Clarke County, MS, by removing large wood obstructions from the stream channel. The Pat Harrison Waterways District conducted an initial survey in 2002 and commissioned a follow-up in 2004, determining in both instances, that such a project would be extremely costly and ill-advised. None-the-less, the project proceeded from 2006-2008. Our purpose is not to speculate on whether the project was environmentally or financially appropriate, nor is it an attempted indictment of the agencies involved, past or present. Instead, we look to the historical record, seeking any information that might provide insight into the potential long-term success of a project like that conducted recently on the Chickasawhay.

Interestingly, "improvements" to the Chickasawhay River began over 100 years ago. Initial examination from Subuta to its confluence with the Leaf River began in 1878-1879 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). This was followed a decade later (1888-1889) with an examination of the reach from Enterprise to Bucatunna. Both surveys concluded that the Chickasawhay was "badly obstructed by logs, snags, overhanging trees, shoals, etc." Regardless, the stream was considered "worthy of improvement by the United States" and a project began in 1890 to provide for high-stage navigation from Shubuta to the Leaf-Chickasawhay confluence.

Based on available Annual Reports to the Chief of Engineers, there are three general phases of USACE engagement with the Chickasawhay: (1) Improvement (1890-1900); (2) Maintenance (1900-1910); and (3) Depreciation (1910-1915). The Corps begins ambitiously in the 1890’s, removing or cutting up thousands of obstructions from the river as listed in an 1892 report:

Overhanging trees felled and cut up 4500
Number of cuts5000
Overhanging trees trimmed1500
Logs on bank cut up6000

The Corps then gradually realized the scope of the task and the dynamic realities of the Chickasawhay at the turn of the century and adjectives such as "troublesome" and "dangerous" began to be used. Also at this point, USACE redefined the stream reach to be improved and the new section for improvement coincidentally corresponded with the reach they had already cleaned—the project was pronounced "complete." All subsequent activity to ~1910 was related to channel maintenance, and it was acknowledged that if maintenance ceased, the stream would quickly return to its original condition. During the early 1910’s, USACE begins to "retreat" and in 1915, presented two arguments to justify the project’s suspension: (1) "No protest against obstruction of the river has ever been received"; and (2) the stream is "commercially unimportant, useful only for logging and rafting." The Chickasawhay was then declared "unworthy of improvement by the United States" and all future expenditures ceased. So after 25 years, that was that. And now almost a century later, the Chickasawhay is again under the spotlight. But if history is any guide, she is not likely to surrender without a fight.

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