Corps of Engineers give green light for massive flood control project; future of pumps still unclear

Published 5:29 am Monday, January 18, 2021

Farmers and environmentalists have been arguing for decades over proposals for a massive federal flood-control project in the south Mississippi Delta. The fight is continuing into a new presidential administration.

Four conservation groups are suing the Environmental Protection Agency, with the ultimate goal of blocking construction of pumps in the Yazoo Backwater area north of Vicksburg.

The pump project moved closer to reality during Republican President Donald Trump’s four years in office, propelled by lobbying from Mississippi elected officials.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday gave a green light to the project, but Congress has set aside only a portion of the money needed. The estimated price tag is at least $400 million.

It’s unclear how the EPA will view the pumps once the agency gets a new leader as Democrat Joe Biden becomes president, or if the lawsuit by the conservation groups will block what the Corps of Engineers has done.

American Rivers, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club and Healthy Gulf sued the EPA on Jan. 12 in federal court in the District of Columbia. The lawsuit says the pumps would “drain tens of thousands of acres of hemispherically significant wetlands in an ecologically rich and sparsely populated area.”

The EPA vetoed a version of the proposed pump project in 2008, but the agency’s administrator appointed by Trump, Andrew Wheeler, said in April that the EPA would reconsider that decision. An EPA regional administrator in Atlanta wrote Nov. 30 that the current version of the pump project is not subject to the agency’s 2008 veto.

The conservation groups say in their lawsuit that the EPA’s reversal of its own veto disregarded “core principles of administrative law, including the obligation to seek public comment and provide a rational explanation for such an abrupt reversal.”

The flatlands between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers are dominated by agriculture and dotted with small communities. The area has flooded nine of the past 10 years, including a 2019 deluge that lasted several months.

The current proposal calls for pumps near Deer Creek north of Vicksburg, while a previous proposal would have put them a few miles away.

Opponents say pushing water out of the south Delta could cause worse flooding downstream along the Mississippi River, and that the main beneficiaries of the project would be agribusinesses.

The late Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona once called the Yazoo Backwater pumps “one of the worst projects ever conceived by Congress.”

The pumps have bipartisan support in Mississippi, including from Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, whose district includes the backwater area.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, Republican U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith and other politicians who support the pump project appeared in Vicksburg on Jan. 11 with Wheeler.

The pumps were originally proposed as part of a larger federal flood-control plan. Wicker said Yazoo Backwater flooding has been exacerbated by other structures that were built as part of that plan, according to the Vicksburg Post.

“So we are going back with the other half of this project that has been authorized for some time and we haven’t been able to get done,” Wicker said. “This balances sound conservation and flood protection; it is based on sound science.”

The Corps of Engineers said in 2020 that pumps would decrease the depth and duration of flooding in the Yazoo Backwater, and that rainfall would keep this part of the Delta from drying out.

The conservation groups say in their lawsuit that the pumps would damage environmentally sensitive areas, including “globally significant habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl.”

The Mississippi Levee Board said in a statement Friday that it will vigorously oppose the lawsuit. The board statement added: “Our community knows better than outsiders how backwater floods can devastate lives, homes and our natural resources.”