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Turkey Creek named one of America’s most endangered rivers of 2021 in new report

Updated: Apr. 13, 2021 at 8:20 AM CDT
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GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - Gulfport’s Turkey Creek has been named the 10th most endangered rivers by the nonprofit American Rivers.

Citing the threat that commercial developments pose to clean water and the health, safety and heritage of the local community, American Rivers is calling on Mississippi state agencies to retract the development permit and evaluate the full suite of impacts on Turkey Creek and the surrounding environment.

“The America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a call to action to save rivers facing urgent decisions,” said Olivia Dorothy with American Rivers. “Turkey Creek and its communities will suffer more pollution, flooding and injustice unless Mississippi state agencies step up to protect the creek and the area’s unique heritage.”

For years, harmful development has impacted the water quality and health of Turkey Creek, as well as the health, safety and economic integrity of the African American communities of North Gulfport, Turkey Creek and Forest Heights, states the report. Now, new proposed developments could make the situation worse.

One proposed development – a staging area for military shipments – would cover 16 acres and drain more than three acres of wetlands on a site where lead and arsenic contamination exceed regulatory limits. The development could send contaminants into the creek, endangering the health and safety of local residents during storms and floods. Turkey Creek and its surrounding wetlands play a key role in mitigating flood risk, but increased development will only reduce the ability of the river and land to absorb increased inputs of water and contaminants.

“Turkey Creek is adjacent to the historically significant Forest Heights community that was established by a joint venture between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), supported by the Ford Foundation. We are committed to protecting Turkey Creek, Forest Heights and surrounding communities and preserving the treasured legacy of our former National NCNW President and Congressional Medal recipient, the late Dr. Dorothy Height,” explained Victoria Thornton Sharpe, President of the Gulfport Section of the NCNW.

American Rivers and its partners called on Mississippi state agencies to withhold permits and funding for development proposals until an evaluation of the full suite of impacts, including health, safety and economic impacts to the creek, and the Turkey Creek and Forest Heights communities, is completed by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

In addition, American Rivers urged the Biden administration’s interagency council on environmental justice to examine Turkey Creek and its associated communities as a case study to investigate the systemic racism that continues to plague development decisions.

“This Most Endangered River listing comes as our community is approaching the one-year anniversary of the death of Rose Johnson, who was a tireless advocate for Turkey Creek, where she was baptized. We will continue to speak up for the creek, and our community, in her honor,” declared Ruth Story, Executive Director of the Education, Economics, Environmental, Climate and Health Organization (EEECHO). “EEECHO and our partners are planning a public virtual tribute to Rose tonight where we will discuss this important listing and our campaign to protect this endangered treasure.”

“Rose Johnson’s neighbors and allies for a more healthy, just and sustainable Turkey Creek have long had, thanks to her, our own state and federally-funded plans for our endangered coastal stream and historic neighborhoods,” said Derrick Evans with Turkey Creek Community Initiatives. “Since 2004, this inclusive exercise in community problem-solving and African-American self-determination has led to some restoration of our eroding cultural and environmental resources. More needs to be done. As Rose would say, projects or discussions that ignore sixteen years and hundreds of pages of community visioning, planning and progress are irresponsible, disrespectful and unjust.”

Gulfport’s Turkey Creek is a 13-mile freshwater creek popular for fishing, swimming and canoeing, that connects with Bayou Bernard, just north of the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.

Turkey Creek flows through the two historically important communities of Turkey Creek and Forest Heights. In 1866, recently emancipated African Americans purchased and settled the 320 acres or “eight forties” that came to be known as the Turkey Creek community. It remained essentially undisturbed until the mid-1980s when development began to encroach upon the neighborhood. Then in 2001, the historic cemetery was largely destroyed leading the Mississippi Heritage Trust to list the community as one of Mississippi’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places.

“Turkey Creek has a funny name, but what’s being done to it is dead serious. For almost two centuries, the creek has been at the core of two historic, African American Communities. To damage it, is to attack them. Both must be protected and respected,” said Stephen F. Eisenman, Co-founder, Anthropocene Alliance.

The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates. Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.

The public is invited to a “Tribute to Rose Johnson and Discussion of Turkey Creek Endangered Rivers Designation” on April 13 at 7 p.m. The Zoom link to join the event is https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83325572992?pwd=Z1N5cEVpYVFORlpxcWg1N1ltMzJkdz09.

The other rivers on the America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2021 report include:

  • #1: Snake River (ID, WA, OR) - Threat: Four federal dams on the lower Snake River
  • #2: Lower Missouri River (MO, IA, NE, KS) - Threat: Outdated river management
  • #3: Boundary Waters (MN) - Threat: Sulfide-ore copper mining
  • #4: South River (GA) - Threat: Pollution due to lax enforcement
  • #5: Pecos River (NM) - Threat: Pollution from proposed hardrock mining
  • #6: Tar Creek (OK) - Threat: Pollution from Tar Creek Superfund Site
  • #7: McCloud River (CA) - Threat: Raising of Shasta Dam
  • #8: Ipswich River (MA) - Threat: Excessive water withdrawals
  • #9: Raccoon River (IA) - Threat: Pollution from industrial agriculture and factory farming
  • #10: Turkey Creek (MS) - Threat: Two major developments

UPDATE: On Thursday, April 15, 2021, Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes released the following statement on Turkey Creek being named one of America’s most endangered rivers of 2021:

“Once again, an outside group plays to stereotype and uses a term ill-suited to the character and conduct of our city in an attempt to sensationalize an issue.  This lowest-common-denominator approach to “all things Mississippi” relies on cheap, shop-worn clichés that have no place, here.   We enjoy a rich diversity of people, opportunity, resources, economy, and culture in our coastal community.  There is great respect for our natural resources - and the balance that must be maintained for the preservation and enjoyment of those gifts.  Naturally, I bristle when any of us are maligned, for any purpose.

The assertions made in (multiple, identical campaign) letters received on behalf of American Rivers are yet another example of the mischaracterization that has been visited upon a historical African American community for years, hindering any improvements to Turkey Creek or the surrounding watershed.  Even more typical, is the assumption – often by people who have never set foot inside our border - that because a matter is controversial in Mississippi, then it must be racial.  How sad.  If the door of tolerance must swing both ways, then one must consider that the specter of the term “Systemic Racism” may exist in the ranks of those who claim it is being foisted upon them.

If there were truly a racist motivation on matters before the City of Gulfport, then this administration would not have taken a very public, leading role in urging a change to our State flag.  We would not have focused our attention on improvements to predominantly minority wards with quality-of-life enhancements in the form of new parks, community gardens, walking and bicycle trails, and splash pads.  Nor, would we have ever engaged in an “all-hands-on-deck” effort prioritizing the need for millions of dollars for a levee project in Forest Heights that experiences regular street flooding, but, in reality, has had only four homes flood in the last 15 years.  Is this where the need is?  Or is it in the creation of traffic relief to a corridor that presently accommodates over 100,000 vehicles per day?  There is merit to both considerations.  The need to cure the serious congestion at both Landon and Creosote Road interchanges has reached critical levels.   It is an irrefutable public safety matter.   With an overwhelming majority vote of Gulfport’s City Council on multiple occasions (for both projects) the BUILD Grant proposal has been presented, vetted, and modified more than most, in consideration of shared sensitivities for impacts to Turkey Creek.  These projects do not have to be mutually exclusive, as both can serve the interests of our community in a responsibly productive manner.

For quite some time, Turkey Creek has been the subject of numerous watershed plans and studies, but for any number of reasons, none were ever implemented.  Going back as far as 1999, County Supervisor William Martin, sought to bring about enhancements to his district through clean-up, vegetation, and restoration work in Turkey Creek, getting commitments of over $600,000 for this initiative.   Sadly, conflicts within the community prevented any of these improvements from taking place.  The reality is, Turkey Creek was once a beautiful tributary, but today is clogged with litter, logs, and fallen trees.  The decades-long pile up of debris has contributed to the exacerbation of flooding concerns in and along this watershed.   Had de-snagging measures been completed, the creek would enjoy better flow and function.

Until very recently, this stream was not even on American Rivers’ radar.  It appears the “Endangered Rivers” listing was not determined so much by independent research and assessment, as it was to BUILD Grant opponents shopping the issue with as many regulatory and environmental groups who would listen, in hopes of finding a sympathetic, opportunistic forum.  They found it in American Rivers.  If this group were truly concerned about the condition of the waterway, they would have made an effort to inspect the area, consult with parties on all sides of the issue, and offer potential solutions.  A treasure like Turkey Creek deserves attention, but the neglected state it is presently in manifested long before any development plans were ever discussed.  We welcome any scrutiny and assistance that would give us an opportunity to learn from the success of others and work collectively toward the enhancement of our natural resources.

Finally, it is not as if the city is pursuing the BUILD Grant project without any community input, scientific research, and environmental sensitivity.  Engineers confirm that adjustments incorporated into the plan could actually help mitigate the threat and flow of water in the area.  In addition, with Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and Department of Transportation (MDOT) performing due diligence oversight, assuring that these areas will not be negatively affected, why does the notion persist that grievous damage will be done to the watershed and related areas?  To underscore how seriously the community’s concerns have been taken into account, an additional $4 million has been added to the cost of this project to incorporate features that directly address additional protective measures for flood control.

Like our success with the Job Corps Center design, incorporating elements of the historical African American 33rd Avenue High School, communication was key to overcoming trust issues - resulting in a development we can all take great pride in.  It is because of the collaboration local and federal officials engaged in with concerned alumni, that the design of the Job Corps Center has both historical connection and modern amenities.  Truly, a great collective effort!

I still hold out hope and belief that similar results can be had, as we continue to incorporate the concerns of our minority communities in finding solutions that are in the best interests of all of our citizens.”

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