Lake Okhissa in Franklin County could finally begin filling with water by year’s end if construction continues on schedule. Residents have been waiting five years for the manmade lake that is expected to make the area a vacation destination.
Construction of the lake’s dam came to a halt last year during a dispute between the original contractor of the lake’s dam and the U.S. Natural Resource and Conversation Service (NRCS), the federal agency in charge of the project.
This spring, the NRCS hired a new contractor, Pickett Industries of Shreveport, La., to complete the last few feet of the dam, install wave protection and establish sod for soil stabilization on the dam. The dam’s gate is expected to be closed this fall so that the 1,050-acre lake can begin filling up with rainfall.
At more than 90 feet tall, the Lake Okhissa dam is the second tallest in the state behind Sardis. The dam’s original contractor, J.H. Parker of Natchez, repeatedly questioned the dam’s safety, while the NRCS maintained the dam was perfectly safe.
While on the job, John Parker voiced his concern that the dam’s foundation was too soft, which caused the dam’s box to crack. The “box” is the concrete box conduit that allows water to stream through the center of the dam to the creek on the other side. Parker became concerned when he saw sizable cracks in the box while the dam was still under construction and noted in a letter to the NRCS that he worried about his crew’s safety traveling back and forth across the dam. He was also concerned about the safety of residents who live around the dam when the lake fills up.
The NRCS said the soil was solid and that the cracks were due to natural settling, which was anticipated in the dam’s design.
Parker filed suit against the NRCS in federal court after he was terminated by the agency in April 2003 when the job was over 90% complete. In a letter to Parker, the NRCS stated that the termination for default was based on “your failure to perform, make progress and that failure endangered the completion of the contract.” The NRCS further stated “there are no corrective measures or design problems in this project.”
After months of wrangling that got Sen. Thad Cochran involved, the Army Corps of Engineers performed a dam penetration test this spring that confirmed that the soil beneath the dam was solid. According to NRCS state engineer Kim Harris, “the data strongly indicated that the foundation of the dam was as we had planned…it was very solid.”
Parker not so sure
But Parker remains doubtful because the NRCS did not follow the recommendation of Schnabel Engineering South of Alpharetta, Ga., an independent firm hired by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to study the dam during the dispute. Schnabel recommended boring into the dam and taking physical samples to analyze, but fearing fractures, the NRCS chose to do a dam penetration test. MDEQ did not require the NRCS to follow Schnabel’s recommendation.
Parker compared the two tests to X-rays and photographs — one is conclusive, one is inferred.
“Say you’ve got someone with lung cancer,” he said. “An X-ray will show lung cancer. A photograph of that person won’t. The testing they did was not what they were told to do, and the results were not as accurate.”
As the agency in charge of dam safety, MDEQ’s focus now is to make sure there are adequate monitoring systems in place to assure any problems are detected early, said MDEQ spokesperson Sam Mabry.
MDEQ signed off on the dam’s original design in 1998.
Lake Okhissa is located in the Homochitto National Forest. The USDA Forest Service expects it will take 2-1/2 years to fill the lake with natural rainfall, “like a cereal bow,” said Carol Boll, spokesperson for the Forest Service. The lake is 73 feet deep, but fortunately, the area gets between 50 and 70 inches of rainfall a year. By spring 2007, the lake should be full for fishing.
The Forest Service is developing a prospectus and expects to begin soliciting proposals from private developers this fall to make the area around the lake a vacation destination. An investor is expected to be on board by the end of 2005 to build major recreation facilities such as a lodge, cabins, restaurant, marina and campgrounds.
Design work is ongoing for recreation infrastructure, including roads, beaches and boat ramps. The Forest Service completed proposed fish cover, passageways and feeding habitat in 2003.
A market study conducted by the University of Mississippi in the late 1990s predicted that the lake and its amenities would attract more than 200,000 visitors per year within three years of opening.
Those visitors are expected to spend $3.5 million a year at the recreation site and create a $6-million economic impact on the area.
Boll said close to 200 people have already called about developing the land. Interested parties can call the U.S. Forest Lake Team at (601) 384-2814.
Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.