Trump admin revives flood project killed by EPA veto

By Daniel Cusick | 04/17/2020 01:22 PM EDT

The Yazoo River floods farms and homes in the Mississippi Delta in this May 2011 file photo.

The Yazoo River floods farms and homes in the Mississippi Delta in this May 2011 file photo. Eric Thayer/Reuters/Newscom

The Trump administration has resurrected a World War II-era flood control project that Mississippi politicians say was unfairly smothered by an overzealous EPA 12 years ago.

The Yazoo Pumps project, conceived in 1941 by the Army Corps of Engineers and killed by the George W. Bush administration in 2008, has long been the target of scorn by environmentalists who deride it as a white elephant that should stay dead.

Yet the project is very much alive. With a price tag of $440 million, it would put a massive pumping station in the 1,550-square-mile Yazoo Backwater Area to move floodwater from semidrained uplands into the Mississippi River during peak flood events.

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EPA’s 2008 death sentence, handed down in a rarely used Clean Water Act Section 404 veto, appears to be null and void, at least according to the Army Corps. EPA has used its veto power just 13 times since 1972 (Greenwire, April 23, 2019).

"The Vicksburg District is committed to the safety and wellbeing of the communities within the Yazoo Backwater Area," District Commander Col. Robert Hilliard said in a statement. "Recurring flooding has demonstrated the need to complete the Yazoo Backwater Area Pump Project feature, and this notice of intent is the next step to move things forward to minimize flooding and preserve natural resources in the south Delta."

Environmentalists struck back immediately.

This map shows the Yazoo Backwater Area. credit: Fish and Wildlife Service
This map shows the Yazoo Backwater Area — surrounded by its levee, the Yazoo River and the Mississippi River — as well as the site of a proposed pumping plant in the Mississippi Delta.

"The Corps is making a careless decision to spend more time and taxpayer money to study the antiquated, ineffective Yazoo Pumps while the South Delta continues to suffer," Jill Mastrototaro, policy director of Audubon Mississippi, said in a statement. "Local communities deserve practical, affordable solutions to aid flood recovery today and to provide permanent relief that gets people and property out of harm’s way."

The Sierra Club’s Mississippi chapter called the pump project a "boondoggle" and "the poster child for political pork barrel spending."

As before, the pumping station would be built near the confluence of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers on land that was once part of a wide alluvial plain. Water once flowed freely across the backwater area, especially during flood tides, but it was leveed off from the rivers in 1978, creating what state officials hoped would be suitable land for agriculture and development.

Today the area supports roughly 1,000 homes and farms and remains highly prone to flooding. Officials say conditions are worsening as river floods become more frequent and severe, but also by heavy rainfall that’s trapped in the backwater area during major storm events that are also happening more frequently as the climate changes.

In a Federal Register notice, the Army Corps says flood conditions in the Mississippi basin have substantially changed over the past two decades, enough to warrant a fresh look at the pump project.

Among other things, the corps said the Yazoo Backwater Area is today a stagnant, artificial lake uninhabitable "by nearly all species," including humans and agricultural crops. Officials further state that last year’s historic flood event in the area "would have been several feet lower and lasted for fewer months if the Yazoo Area Pump Project feature had been completed."

Moreover, the corps said new data "indicates that the environmental impacts to wetlands and aquatic resources caused by a pumping plant would be substantially less than originally calculated" in a 2007 reformulation study and final environmental impact statement that was rejected by EPA through its required Clean Water Act consultation with the corps.

Calls and emails to EPA’s Region 4 office in Atlanta were not returned this morning.

Miss. politicians praise corps

The Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners passed a resolution of support yesterday that hails "the willingness by both the corps and the EPA to reevaluate construction and operation of the project."

The board added, "Leaders from both agencies have visited the Backwater area and expressed support for finding a solution to the devastating floods."

Senior Mississippi lawmakers, including Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R), also welcomed the Army Corps’ announcement, calling the new environmental review "a step that could lead to much-needed flood protection in the South Delta."

"I certainly welcome this first concrete display of future progress on pumps," Hyde-Smith said in a statement. "I regret it has taken successive years of disastrous flooding to reach this point, but I am grateful to this Administration for recognizing the need to complete the project."

Hyde-Smith in February helped secure $7.5 million in corps funding to help revive the Yazoo Pumps project.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D), whose 2nd District encompasses the Yazoo Backwater Area, said the project "is of critical importance" to reduce flood risk in the delta region.

Officials say the pump station will complete the last step of a comprehensive flood control plan for the region authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1941.

Other senior Mississippi politicians backing the revived project are Sen. Roger Wicker (R), Gov. Tate Reeves (R) and former Gov. Phil Bryant (R).

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