The concept sounds simple enough: install a pump to prevent flood waters from turning homes and crop land into watery disasters. But in reality, the Yazoo Backwater Pump Project has stirred controversy.
With that in mind, Delta Council's flood control committee met April 24 in Stoneville, Miss., to discuss the status of flood control projects across the state, and potential roadblocks to completion of the South Delta's Yazoo backwater pump project.
“I don't know why it has taken 60 years to get this done. It just doesn't make sense, because it needs to be done,” says Tom Gary, chairman of Delta Council's flood control committee. “The Yazoo Backwater Pump Project is not complicated, but is simply one more step in keeping the Delta's water moving until all areas have the opportunity to prosper without frequent and damaging floods.
According to Gary, the South Delta Yazoo Backwater area gathers over 4,000 square miles of rainfall from all parts of the Delta. And while flood control relief projects in cities like Greenwood, Greenville, Belzoni, and Glendora are progressing, the South Delta project has not yet gotten under way.
“We remain completely committed to making certain that the last remaining flood control project in the Delta receives the same level of support and emphasis as the first project which got started almost 12 years ago on the Yazoo River,” he says. “Delta Council has always worked closely with both levee boards to provide an added level of support for the work to bring flood control to every area of the region.”
Kent Parrish with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Vicksburg District in Vicksburg, Miss., admits the South Delta pump project has taken a lot of unexpected twists and turns since its inception.
One reason for the questions, he says, is that many people simply do not understand how the flood control structure and the pump will work. “It's not going to completely dry the Delta up,” he says. “However, the pump project will knock out 3 to 5 feet of flood water, which would get water out of more than 100 homes in a flood situation.”
After examining alternatives for the last seven years of the project's life, Parrish says, “We are very proud of our plans to address various concerns about the project's environmental impact, but we've still been roundly criticized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Federation and EPA, who say that our plans won't work.”
Parrish says he does not fully understand why wildlife interests would oppose plans for the Yazoo backwater pump project. And in fact, he says, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's own research has found that the overall benefit that results from reforestation far exceeds the losses of foraging habitat.
In addition, he says, the Corp of Engineer plan maintains private ownership of reforested lands, restores waterfowl habitat, and reduces sediment and nutrient runoff into streams. The plan includes a large amount of reforestation, voluntary conservation easements, and the increased elevation level supported by some opponents of the overall plan.
The flood control project has been portrayed by some plan opponents as a plan for the “rich” farmers of the South Delta.” It's not, Parrish says. “No matter who you are, the flood water is going to get you.”
Gary asks, “Is it more environmentally responsible or better for human health and a normal quality of life to allow stagnant flood waters from 4,000 square miles of land to sit in people's yards and on their land and in their houses for 10 to 20 days. Or does it sound more reasonable to lift these stagnant flood waters with the Yazoo backwater pump project, and relieve the people and the property in that area of this dilemma?”
“The answer is simple to me, but for some reason it has taken more than 60 years for this project to move from concept to reality,” he says.
The Corp of Engineers' proposed schedule has site construction beginning in January 2006. However, Parrish says, that schedule is based on the assumption that no lawsuits are filed against the project and project developers are able to obtain water quality certification from the Department of Environmental Quality. “It's just one stumbling block after another along this road,” he says.