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Pump or not to pump?

Peter Nimrod

Peter Nimrod

Controversial pump could have saved farmers thousands of acres of flooded farmland last year

As the proposed Yazoo Backwater Project, aimed at controlling floods in the South Delta, works its way through the legal system, farmers are calculating their losses last year caused by the record rainfall.

Would the project’s proposed pumping station have saved a significant amount of cropland last year in the South Delta? The Mississippi Levee Board says yes, and that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was wrong to halt it. Environmentalists, on the other hand, say the potential loss of habitat is not only bad for the region’s unique environment, pumping the area would actually be detrimental to flood control efforts.

“The farmland in that area is being called ‘marginal,’” said Peter Nimrod, chief engineer with the Mississippi Levee Board. “It’s marginal because it is prone to flooding.”

In a Feb. 2009 piece on the web site of the Sierra Club, which opposes the project, Hannah Buoye wrote that the project is “murky logic,” and that the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ proposed pump would “drain wetlands for flood control, even though the marshes provide natural flood protection.”

After nearly 70 years of debate, it seems the two sides are as far apart as they have ever been.

Nimrod supplied figures that he says shows the pump would have saved a significant amount of South Delta farmland from flooding last year. He said last year, the backwater level at the Steele Bayou structure reached 93.7 feet. That flooded nearly 400,000 total acres of which 152,300 was in agriculture. With the pump in operation, the backwater level would have been 90.81 feet, inundating less than 300,000 total acres and 90,400 of farmland.

He feels keeping more than 60,000 acres of cropland dry meets the definition of “significant.”

Bouye wrote, “(Mississippi chapter of the Sierra Club director) Louie Miller says the plan was designed to profit subsidized agribusiness by creating more cropland.”

Both sides now are watching the courts to see what their next move might be. The Mississippi Levee Board has filed a lawsuit against the EPA, which vetoed the project in 2008, claiming the agency did not have the authority to thwart the project that had been approved and funded by Congress.

The gist of the legal battle is over a provision of the Clean Water Act. The act’s Section 404(c) gives the EPA veto power over projects if certain specifications are not met, one being that Congress must be provided an environmental impact statement (EIS) before approving and/or funding a project.

The Mississippi Levee Board supplied an EIS to Congress. However, the EPA could find no evidence that lawmakers had seen the document. According to Nimrod, the Board contacted the Corps of Engineers, who said the documentation was missing, perhaps destroyed during the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon where records are stored.

In the end, the Board found its documentation, but just three days before it could present it to the EPA, the agency vetoed the project.

Nimrod finds the timing interesting — perhaps troubling. He said the EPA vetoed the pump project Aug. 31, 2008, which was the Sunday before Labor Day. He is convinced that the EPA knew the Board would be presenting the needed documentation — which it did Sept. 3, 2008 — and worked “overtime” to block it even though work had already begun on the project beginning in 1986.

Nimrod said attorneys are working on the final briefs. He hopes the case is before a judge in September or October of this year.

The Mississippi Levee Board claims a compromise plan, offered prior to the veto, was a good balance between protecting property and the environment. The original plan called for a pump capable of moving 25,000 cubic feet per second and holding the backwater level at 80 feet. The compromise called for a pump capable of 14,000 cubic feet per second and a water level of 87 feet in addition to reforestation by the Corps of Engineers of more than 62,000 acres.

Environmentalist felt this still was not enough. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, a plan opponent, echoed Miller’s sentiment — that the project benefited a few landowners at the expanse of the general public and the South Delta’s flora and fauna.

“The proposal appears to follow the flood control and drainage policies of the past rather than the current policies and directives for a balanced structural/non-structural approach,” the Fish & Wildlife Service says on its web site.

Buoye quoted Miller as saying that now is the time “to start looking for investment that directly benefits the community.”

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