If the EPA follows through with a threatened veto, Mississippi’s Yazoo Backwater Project — despite congressional authorization, funding and decades of planning — will never be built.
That means Mississippi’s lower Delta region will continue to hold massive amounts of water adversely affecting residents and commerce.
The EPA will take comments through May 5 and then, sometime in the following 60 days, is expected to kill the project.
Clifton Porter, who lives and farms near Rolling Fork, Miss., insists proponents will keep pushing the project “until the EPA actually vetoes it. But we know their threat is real and they’ll do what they can to veto. We’re not going away, though — we’re going to make them do it.”
After years of the government breaking promises regarding the project, the EPA should feel acute shame for its tactics, says Porter.
“The Mississippi River levee is about 300 yards from my house. Right now, seep water and backwater is inching up. We’ve got seep water on the front of the property and backwater on the backside. I’m trying to work the middle.”
With it’s geography and flood control configuration, Mississippi’s lower Delta is often described as a bathtub that, when full, has no way to drain. The proposed pumping station would serve that purpose.
At its bottom end, gates have been installed to keep the Mississippi River from backing into Delta acreage. In late April, the Mississippi River had crested, although it was falling very slowly.
The gates were holding about 9 feet of river water off the lower Delta. Even so, more than 300,000 acres were underwater.
The best guess is the gates will be opened around May 20.
(For more, see the accompanying interview with Peter Nimrod, chief engineer with the Mississippi Levee Board)
“So, we’ll have to hold all the rain that falls in the Delta until those gates open,” says Porter. “We’ve been planting where we can. All the corn is in — and we’ve lost some to flooding. We’re doing what we can to keep water from running into fields. The problem with that is, of course, if a big rain comes, the water is trapped in the field.
“Say out of a 60-acre cornfield, we’re left with 45 acres of viable crop when the water recedes. What do we do with those 15 acres? Plant beans? More corn? It’s hard to know what to do. I’m certainly not fertilizing any corn until I see the river begin to fall a little.”
Other area farmers have put out fertilizer. “Some have also put out atrazine — so their options are limited if they need to do any replanting. There are all kinds of problems that farmers face in these situations that the general public don’t understand.”
Every time clouds gather, “it’s like a sword hanging over our heads.”
A lifelong resident of the Delta, Jim Luckett knows the feeling. Luckett’s family is part owner of Delta Wildlife and Forestry, a hunting/timber concern in Issaquena County that has about 21,000 acres of mostly hardwood forest in the backwater area.
This is a bad year for flooding, says Luckett. “In a typical year, there is some backwater flooding, but nothing like now. It all depends on the Mississippi River and the water level it’s carrying. If the river is up and the flood control gates are closed to where the Mississippi River can’t back into the lower Delta, the water coming down the Sunflower River drainage basin has nowhere to go. It starts stacking up and that’s when the flooding occurs.
“This year, the backwater levees are probably keeping 7 feet of water off the south Delta, at least.”
Luckett’s timber is “extensively flooded. And don’t think this is a problem just on our property. Something people should realize about the project: much of our property is about 90 feet above sea level. The pumps for the proposed project wouldn’t kick on until water reached 87 feet in elevation. By that time, there would already be quite a bit of flooding.”
How is the flooding affecting wildlife on the hunting club?
“The wildlife is stressed. The flooding has forced the creatures from the lower habitat to accumulate on ridges and higher ground. That means predation increases tremendously. That’s good news for the predators. But the game species are the ones being preyed upon most — deer, turkey and the like.”
Turkeys nest around this time of year, and “if they’ve already established nests, they’ll be destroyed. If it isn’t too late in the year, they may try to re-nest. But often, in this circumstance, any possibility of a hatch is lost.”
Does are also close to dropping fawns. But due to stresses from the flood, the fawn drop will be harmed.
As for the timber, there is another set of problems with long, warm-season floods. When timber is dormant in the winter, it doesn’t mind a cold flood. But when it warms up, the trees become stressed.
A forest’s species composition is determined by elevation. Some trees tolerate wet feet, some can’t. “But with water just standing on these trees — and we’ve had a flood stay on through June before — it begins to get hot. Not bathtub hot, but hot enough to cause doughtiness. That’s when the interior of the trees begins to decay. That can cause disease and hollow trees. And hollow trees won’t make any money. They’re not good as saw longs and have limited use as pulpwood.”
The human toll of the flooding is paramount, however. Luckett says he’s amazed fellow Americans seem oblivious to the poverty many lower Delta residents are in.
“There have been a lot of tours around” the flooded areas. Those opposed to the project “know what’s going on, what residents here face. And yet, I’ve heard them say, ‘well, the solution is simple: just move those people out of there.’ Who thinks it’s that simple? Is that not really harsh? But it’s being preached strong.
“I’m telling you, opponents have been the source of a lot disinformation surrounding the project. Downright lies, sometimes.”
However, Luckett’s harshest criticism is for the EPA. “The EPA has played a dirty ballgame. At their request, there have been years of study done on this project. Literally, there has been extensive study on top of study done. As a result, the project is rooted in science.
“The EPA wanted certain information and they were provided it. They wanted concessions and they got them. We made every effort to work with, not against, the EPA.
“We were rocking along with the EPA, everything looking good. We were under the impression we were working together but that wasn’t the case.”
In describing the EPA plan to shut the project down, Luckett says, “Disappointment and disgust are the mildest, most polite words to express the way I feel. I thought the agency was working for, and with, us. But rather than dealing with regulatory issues, they became an advocacy group. That’s supposed to be out of bounds in our political system.”
Porter is no less upset. “Quote me: We’re brokenhearted because of what appears to be a failed promise the U.S. government made in 1941. We were promised that the Yazoo backwater pumps would be built as part of the Delta flood control project. The chances are good the EPA will veto this project and stop it altogether. It’s devastating to think our government would do that to us.”
(For more on the proposed project, visit www.yazoopump.com.)