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franklin county times

Okatibbee deal only one project in water district

By By Ben Alexander/The Meridian Star
Dec. 11, 2000
A deal to sell up to four billion gallons of water from the Okatibbee Reservoir to the Jackson County Port Authority is one Pat Harrison Waterway District officials say they would probably do again, albeit in a different manner.
Pennington and PHWD Executive Director Chris Bowen met with The Meridian Star's editorial board to discuss the unique sale and the operation of the water district that owns nine water park recreational areas and covers 15 Mississippi counties.
PHWD's focus is on facilities offering boating, swimming, fishing, camping, cabins, skiing, hiking and picnicking. One member of its board is appointed by each of the 15 county boards of supervisors and three others are named by the governor, as is the executive director.
In October the Jackson County Port Authority bought up to four billion gallons of water from the PHWD to help quench the thirst of industries which usually draw water from the Pascagoula River.
Officials said a record-setting statewide drought forced the industries to look for other resources after the Pascagoula River began running dangerously low. The two industries, Chevron and Mississippi Power, agreed to pay the PHWD $100,000 up front for rights to the Okatibbee water and $25,000 for every billion gallons actually used.
Pat Harrison received $125,000 from the sale of the water, but the contract for the industries to buy more expires on Dec. 31.
Although both Bowen and Pennington admit they would probably make the deal again, they don't anticipate having to release any more water downstream this year for the companies.
The billion gallon draw-down on Okatibbee not only cost Chevron and Mississippi Power, but local marina owner Joe Killebrew as water levels dropped and cranes had to be brought in to lift boats out of the water. Bowen said if a similar deal was ever considered again the water district would try to make sure Killebrew was compensated for any losses.
The Hattiesburg-based water district's ability to sell billions of gallons of water that actually sits in Lauderdale County is one Bowen and Pennington says has been being paid for over a 35 year period.
Beginning with the construction and development of the Okatibbee Reservoir in the mid-1960s, Pat Harrison played a vital role in its development, they said. Bowen said the district helped develop the reservoir on the assumption it was going to be used as a water supply resource for the city of Meridian, but a change of heart by the city left the district in a lurch.
Since 1965 Bowen said the waterway district has been paying $49,000 a year for rights to some of the water in the reservoir and the $125,000 from the water sale is the first money ever recouped from its lease.
Pennington and Bowen claim the water in the reservoir is actually shared between the water district and the state and federal governments, while the Army of Corps of Engineers owns the land around the reservoir and the dam itself.
Although Lauderdale County took the blunt of the blow on the water deal by having water drained from Okatibbee, Bowen said the district spends far more money in Lauderdale County than in takes out. Even so, the Okatibbee water park and many other locations actually operate in the red. Last year the Okatibbee Water Park lost $126,000 as fees from usage failed to cover expenses and upkeep.
Even though the district is partially funded by the state, Bowen said the majority of its funding comes from millage levied by each county on its behalf and from the operation of its nine recreational parks. Lauderdale County's 1 mill, for example, provides about $372,000 per year.
Pennington and Bowen said numerous conservation and construction projects are slated to begin at their facilities and the funding from the Jackson County industries will help fund those improvements, including several at Okatibbee.
Ben Alexander is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at balexander@themeridianstar.com.

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