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History of the Ross Barnett Reservoir

History of the Ross Barnett Reservoir

By: Courtney Ingle - September 7, 2023

Whether you’re planning an outdoors excursion, a fishing trip, or simply some time on the water, there’s plenty the Rez has to offer.

Life around the Ross Barnett Reservoir has its own beat. Affectionately called “the Rez,” the 33,000-acre body of water is a thriving space for water recreation such as fishing, boating, or simply sitting and enjoying life on the lake. Centrally located in Rankin County, the Rez is surrounded by Brandon, Ridgeland, and Madison and sits just North of the state’s capitol, Jackson. 

The Rez hasn’t always been what it is today. Prior to 1960, the man-made lake didn’t exist, nor did the restaurants surrounding it or the luxury homes that claim its waterfront real estate today. The multi-purpose trails were old railways, and the Spillway didn’t tower over the river, opening its gates to relieve flooding. 

Building the Rez

Recreation at the Rez is a moneymaker and a good time, but that’s not the reason it was built. And while the opening of the Spillway can help control flooding, that’s also not the reason it was constructed. 

National geographical experts and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began studying flooding along the Pearl River in the 1930s and how a spillway and dam might aid in relief efforts. The main goal of the reservoir, however, was to create a water supply for the City of Jackson. The Pearl River Industrial Commission began drawing up plans for what was initially named the Pearl River Reservoir in 1956, until later when the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District was established as the governing body overseeing the reservoir. PRVWSD is still managing the area today.

Ross Barnett was the governor of Mississippi when the ground for the reservoir project was broken and, therefore, became the namesake of the Ross Barnett Reservoir. 

Construction of the lake began in 1960 and was completed three years later. In 1965, the water levels reached their average depth of 12 feet. The maximum depth dips to sixty feet in certain areas. 

Recreation at the Rez

The Ross Barnett Reservoir became a booming center of outdoor recreation. Thousands rush to the Rez every year for fishing, swimming, boating, spending the day at the sandbars, tubing, and more. The Rez is also surrounded by bike trails, multipurpose trails, parks, and restaurants with outdoor seating. 

The Rez has long been a popular place for fishermen. Louisiana Sportsman calls the Pelahatchie Creek and Bay area on the southeastern corner of the reservoir the best place for crappie and bass. Major League Fishing and Bassmaster both host competitions at the Ross Barnett Reservoir, which bring in professional anglers from all over to compete, and with them comes a big economic boost to the area. 

The Rez also attracts hunters, camping enthusiasts, cyclists and hikers to explore the numerous trails and sites. The Natchez Trace borders the Rez and attracts road-trippers and the outdoorsy folks, providing plenty of scenic places to get out and stretch your legs or have a picnic. One of the most picturesque stops is at the scenic Reservoir Overlook, which is at the mouth of the Chisha Foka Multi-Use Trail.

Annual events at the reservoir, such as Pepsi Pops, Independence Celebration, and the Sunset Concert Series draws crowds of those ready to have a good time. The vendors at the events help to add an additional economic boost to communities along the Rez. 

Renaming the Rez

The Reservoir was originally named the Pearl River Reservoir but was later named the Ross Barnett Reservoir after Ross Robert Barnett, who served as the governor of Mississippi from 1960-1964. Barnett was a known racist and segregationist. On his first two runs for governor, Barnett failed; but when he touted segregation as his platform on his third run, he secured the Democratic Party nomination in 1959 and was elected governor in 1960. There were no Republicans in the race that year and he ran unopposed. 

Given Barnett’s blatant racism and full support of segregation, petitions have circulated to rename the Ross Barnett Reservoir. Petitions arose on in both 2016 and in 2020. When Bobby Cleveland, longtime outdoors writer and reservoir agency spokesperson died in 2021, there was a petition raised to rename the Rez after him. While that didn’t happen, Lakeshore Park was renamed Bobby Cleveland Park at Lakeshore.


Whether you’re planning an outdoors excursion, a fishing trip, or simply some time on the water, there’s plenty the Rez has to offer. For more information about the reservoir, visit here.

About the Author(s)
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Courtney Ingle

Courtney Ingle is a veteran journalist with more than a decade's worth of experience in print, radio, and digital media. Courtney brings her talents to bear at Magnolia Tribune to cover family-centered education and to elevate those unique aspects of Mississippi culture.