Several years ago, I was one of those who thought the Yazoo Backwater Project was another instance of government spending gone crazy for the benefit of a few rich folks, particularly Delta farmers.
And, if you listen to environmentalists and the Environmental Protection Agency as to why they oppose the Yazoo pump project, you’ll think they make a compelling argument.
But I was wrong.
And so were the EPA, the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, American Rivers, the National Wildlife Federation and every other group or organization that opposed the pumps, at least for the reasons they give.
The EPA vetoed the project in 2008, basing its decision on the Clean Water Act.
In August 2009, The Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners sued filed a federal lawsuit challenging the EPA’s decision. The Commission wants to move forward with the $220 million flood-control project.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock dismissed the suit.
So the argument appears to be over.
But my conscience demands that I not allow the EPA’s preposterous reasoning to be the final word.
The EPA’s case
All along, the EPA has said the project would have caused “unacceptable damage to the valuable resources that are used for wildlife, economic and recreational purposes.”
In an interview with a representative of the EPA in January, I asked him what environmental template was used to come up with the assertion of “unacceptable damage.”
The EPA, he said, wants the area of the South Delta to be pristine, the way it was before man began interfering with the wetlands for flood control.
The back story
The Yazoo Backwater Project is a decades-old proposal to build a pump station to drain wetlands, farmland and forests north of Vicksburg when the Mississippi River is high.
Congress authorized the project in 1941 but didn’t come up with enough money for it.
The proposed pump would lower a 100-year flood by four feet, and the project would remove about 60,000 acres from agricultural production so hardwood trees could be planted to increase wetlands.
The levee board lawsuit claimed the EPA’s veto was illegal because the project was approved by Congress before 1977, when the agency was given veto power under the Clean Water Act.
EPA officials have said the pump project doesn’t meet all the requirements to proceed under the Clean Water Act, regardless of the timing.
Louie Miller, state director for the Sierra Club, applauded the dismissal of the lawsuit.
“Today marks the final nail in the coffin of one of the most costly and environmentally destructive projects ever contrived,” Miller said. “This truly marks the end of an era in Mississippi politics.”
“The Pumps boondoggle rose to the level of being one of only 11 projects ever vetoed in the 40 year history of the Clean Water Act,” stated Cynthia Sarthou of Gulf Restoration Network.
However, the levee board’s chief engineer, Peter Nimrod, said last week no one is looking at the real issue, and he insisted politics are being put ahead of what is best for everyone.
Of the EPA, Nimrod said: “They hurt the environment by not allowing us to build it.”
The real issue
Mississippi Republican Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker advised the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations that the Yazoo Backwater Project should be exempt from the EPA veto.
The senators say the project should be exempt from the veto and in a written statement asked “for a full explanation of why that information was ignored” by the EPA.
Even with all the legal wrangling in Washington, it should be understood, the EPA really doesn’t have a clue about the Yazoo Backwater Project. All of the statistics and fancy words being used are smoke and mirrors. When the EPA says it wants the area to be pristine, it proves the argument has nothing to do with the environment.
It’s a lot of money
For sure, the Yazoo Backwater Project is controversial.
Certainly, the high price of the project compared with the number of people it will help in the short or long term is disturbing. And it is true that much of what has been done over the years in the name of flood control across the Delta and North Mississippi has contributed to the continued flooding of the South Delta.
But no reasonable person can be in favor of what the EPA has done in the name of environmental protection.
Other than the price tag, there is no reason to stop the pump project.
It is important to point out that the Yazoo Backwater Project would have many advantages, including a 19 percent increase in naturally occuring wetlands that include the precense of plants such as cattails that are adapted to wet areas. There would also be a 34 percent increase in aquatic resources, which encompasses all the possible roles for water, including human survival needs, supporting aquatic ecosystems and an essential component of economic development.
In addition, the reforestation would improve water quality in the region.
But at what cost?
That’s a lot, for sure.
If at any time there were a guarantee the $220 million from Uncle Sam was a blank check to be used in the best interest of the Mississippi Delta, surely the pumps would be down the list.
However, that is not the reality.
The money is, or would be, specifically for the Yazoo Backwater Project. Maybe the EPA is working on a hush-hush, backdoor plan that would change the way the $220 million is used. Maybe the feds want to buy the land from the owners. Maybe. Probably not.
No one is talking about any other option.
But here’s what everybody should be talking about:
The EPA’s view that rejecting the pumps will leave the Delta in a natural state is warped.
The Delta hasn’t been in a natural state for more than 200 years, since we started farming it and particularly since we started to control flooding.
What we have now is a result of the flood control system put in place 100 years ago, a system that, by all accounts, is a mess.
Because of that, the water from the annual spring floods is, at this very moment, rising against the levees in a giant man-made bathtub. Soon, that water will be destroying wetlands.
No environmental do-gooders are going to change that by stopping the Yazoo Backwater Project.
Contact Mississippi Business Journal editor Ross Reily at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1018.