Long Battle Over Yazoo Pumps

OMAHA (DTN) -- Farmers in Mississippi are hoping moves by EPA to advance a pumping project off the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers will mitigate repeated flooding that has affected the area over the past decade. But environmental groups are looking to block the long-standing Army Corps' of Engineers project from going forward.

The Yazoo Backwater Area is located just north of Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the Yazoo River flows into the Mississippi River. It takes in about 926,000 lowland acres, of which about 500,000 are in the 100-year floodplain. In 2019 alone, roughly 550,000 acres were flooded in the basin for more than six months; more than 600 homes were destroyed.

The Corps' Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) released in December highlighted the backwater area that had flooded nine of the past 10 years.

The Yazoo Basin Backwater Area problem goes back to 1941 and initially pumps were to be included when the Corps began extensively building flood-control projects along the Mississippi River in southern Louisiana and Mississippi. Yet, the Yazoo Backwater Area remained the one part of the basin that did not have pumps installed.

In 2008, under the George W. Bush administration, EPA vetoed plans by the Corps to build a 14,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) pumping station that would move water out of backwater ditches and into the Mississippi River. EPA's decision at that time effectively blocked the pump station from being built. It was a rare decision by the agency.

Coming off the 2019 floods, the Corps' enlisted EPA officials last year to help work on the new SEIS. EPA officials stated last November in a letter that the 2008 veto no longer applied, and the agency revoked its 12-year-old decision as part of the SEIS. Out of millions of water projects over the decades, EPA has used its veto power just 13 times since 1972. The Yazoo project is now the first time EPA has reversed one of its veto decisions.

"Finding a long-term solution to the flooding of the Yazoo Backwater Area will allow the impacted community and environment to prosper and grow," EPA head Andrew Wheeler said at a press event Monday in Vicksburg.

The event included a memorandum of understanding with the Mississippi Farm Bureau to complete the Yazoo pumps. Wheeler was joined at the press conference by Corps' officials as well as the state's U.S. senators and governor, leaders from other Mississippi farm groups and a host of others, highlighting the political support behind the pumps. While EPA may have signed onto the Corps' project, right now it is projected to cost roughly $400 million to complete and the funds would need to be approved by Congress. There also is concern about how the incoming Biden administration could treat the project.

Just a day after Wheeler's event, five national and regional environmental groups sued the agency in the U.S. District Court for D.C. to block EPA's approval of the Yazoo pumps. The groups -- American Rivers, Audubon Mississippi, Earthjustice, Healthy Gulf and the Mississippi Sierra Club -- each criticized EPA's action, claiming the pumps would drain tens of thousands of acres of wetlands. Environmental groups argue the Yazoo Backwater Area includes a significant bottomland of hardwood forested wetlands involving at least 250,000 acres of conservation lands that are managed as wetland resources. The area provides significant habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl.

"EPA has blinded itself to the facts on the ground, its own scientific and legal analyses, and the extensive record supporting the 2008 veto," the environmental groups stated. "The current proposal is based on the same flawed methodologies that EPA decisively rejected in 2008 and would not deliver flood relief to communities by leaving 82% to 89% of flooded lands underwater. The project will have devastating impacts to globally important wetlands, waters and wildlife. "

The project would create a station that could pump 14,000 cfs of water from the backwater ditches into Mississippi River. The Corps' SEIS, stated that pumping floodwaters out of the backwater area would not harm the wetlands. The Corps cited that installing the pumps would improve agricultural lands but would mitigate flood risks for infrastructure and would address the economic and safety concerns of continual flooding in the basin.

The various levees and pumps along tributaries to the Mississippi River in Mississippi and Louisiana create a complicated system of protection, said Clay Adcock, a farmer from Holly Bluff, Mississippi, who farms about 30 miles from where the proposed pumps would be installed. He noted the last three years alone he has seen extensive flooding around where he lives.

"We're used to some moderate flooding in the spring, but after 2019, what I used to call major flooding I now call moderate flooding," Adcock said. "We've gotten to the point now where the flooding just affects us in so many ways."

Willard Jack, a farmer from Belzoni, Mississippi, is 75 miles northeast of Vicksburg. He's used to rain flooding fields, but increasingly, flooding in the Yazoo Backwater Area reaches a point where nothing is draining and the water doesn't move off the land as easily in the spring for planting. The situation has built up over time as the Corps has improved its levee system in Louisiana and Mississippi. If the Yazoo River had pumps, the water would more likely recede quickly.

"As the Army Corps of Engineers has protected more area, they tended to create higher levels in the river, so if you don't have a way to get the water into the river, it hurts you, and that's kind of where the situation is in Mississippi right now," Jack said.

While environmental groups want to champion the wetlands, the floods have increased and that is leading to more wildlife affected and it becomes its own environmental disaster as water sits on ground for months on end, Jack said.

"The last two or three years have been the worst as the water has gotten higher and there's no place for it to go," Jack said. "And this whole area, there is a lot of historic farmland that's been farmed forever, but it's not only the flooding and the agricultural production loss, but it's the human suffering of the people that live there that I feel sorry for. A lot of them can't afford to lose their houses and the cost that it takes to rebuild."

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

© 2021 CHS Inc.