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Stack of challenges await Delta Council annual meeting reset for fall

LEADERS CITE PROGRESS ON YAZOO BACKWATER DRAINAGE EFFORT

EDITOR’S NOTE: Delta Council President Tom Gresham made the following clarification to this article: In the reporters third person account of the project, he made the following statement: “The Council would like to see an additional 200,000 acres in the South Delta planted but first must prevail in a decades-long effort to gain approval for draining vast swaths of the Sunflower Basin. The idea is to pump out water and send it via tributaries into the Mississippi River.”
As President of Delta Council, I want to emphasize that we are talking about the over 200,000 acres of existing farmland and over a half million acres of total land that has been inundated the past two years due to the inability to finish the Pumping Plant. Delta Council has no interest in advocating for any additional cropland and/or clearing of existing forest land in the South Delta. Our intent was to highlight the existing acreage that has not been planted the last two years and the economic disruption it has caused. I would also like to highlight that these floods have decimated silviculture, wildlife, the environment, and, of course, the residents who suffered needlessly because of the inability to finish this project authorized by Congress and a key component of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Plan.

TOM GRESHAM

By TED CARTER

Mississippi Delta Council, the region’s 84-year-old non-profit economic development entity, will have no shortage of major challenges to address at its 2020 annual meeting. But avoiding the spread of the coronavirus will force a delay in the several-day meeting until at least fall.

Customarily held at the end of May on the campus of Cleveland’s Delta State University, the annual gathering of agricultural producers, suppliers, manufacturers and businesses large and small has been postponed to a yet-to-be determined date in October, said Frank Howell, the Council’s executive vice president.

The cancellation is only the third since creation of the Delta Council. World War II caused the first cancellation and spring flooding throughout the region in 2011 the second one.

FRANK HOWELL

The most immediate challenge is one beyond anyone’s control – sustained rainfall across the 19 Delta counties and non-Delta Northwest Mississippi counties the Council represents. Rains have been excessive since the start of the year and into the new planting season, according to Howell.

Farmers are planting, he said at the end of April, but frequent rains have delayed the effort.

“We need some sunshine,” Delta Council President Tom Gresham said in a late April interview.

The Council would like to see an additional 200,000 acres in the South Delta planted but first must prevail in a decades-long effort to gain approval for draining vast swaths of the Sunflower Basin. The idea is to pump out water and send it via tributaries into the Mississippi River.

Progress on the effort dubbed the Yazoo Backwater project marked the Council’s major achievement for 2019-2020, said Tom Gresham, an Indianola petroleum businessman whose term as Council president ends on June 1. The Council will pick Gresham’s successor from among current and former vice presidents.

“I would say as I look back on my tenure, I feel we made great progress working on the South Delta flooding issue,” Gresham said,

Through working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Gresham, “I feel we are much further along than when I took over in June.”

The drainage effort had been stalled since the EPA in the administration of President George W. Bush vetoed the pumping. A Corps of Engineers’ redesign of the project has more recently raised hopes for a federal green light, Gresham said. “We’re very hopeful we can come to a solution.”

In its rejection, the EPA said the project carried too many harmful environmental consequences for the Sunflower Basin, including “unacceptable damage to these valuable resources that are used for wildlife, economic and recreational purposes.”

The veto came after the EPA received more than 47,600 public comments. About 99.91 percent of them urged the EPA to prohibit the project.

The Corps, however, recently issued a notice of intent for a supplemental environmental statement and will be opening a new comment period on its redesign. “We really feel like we have momentum now,” Howell said.

The approximately $220 million project went dormant for several years and would have stayed that way if not for flooding last spring that left 500,000 acres of Delta farm land submerged. Pump supporters, including U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a former Mississippi agriculture commissioner, have urged the Trump administration to take another look at the project they say could have prevented the deluge.

“The South Delta has no other way to remove water or drain rainfall,” said Howell, who directed the Council’s economic development department before taking over for a retiring Chip Morgan last year.

In the meantime, the Delta’s agricultural producers are doing spring planting, but stiff tariffs on farm exports to China combined with the covid-19 pandemic have created a lot of uncertainty about markets and crop prices, say Howell and Gresham.

“By all forecasts, they are going to remain low,” Howell said of prices.

Corn’s per bushel price on May 4 came in 4 to 5 cents below an April 30 price of $3.12. according to FarmProgress.com. Soybeans on May 4 stood 4 to 5 cents below April 30’s $8.50 a bushel, FarmProgress reported.

With falling prices and uncertainty about market destinations, the federal government’s farm safety net is more vital than ever, according to Howell.

The nation’s agriculture, he said, must be included in whatever rescue efforts the White House and Congress take to counter the economic slump caused by virus-related business and community lockdowns around the county.

Howell and Gresham are the founders of the four-year Delta Strong initiative to bring more manufacturing to the region. Supported financially by counties, cities, Chambers of Commerce, businesses and individuals throughout the Delta, the effort seeks to use the collective resources to make the region a major player in the attraction of manufacturing, distribution, and warehousing operations.

Distribution centers in Indianola and Clarksdale and hundreds of jobs they generated are early successes, Gresham noted.

“There’s also been several major expansions of industries that number in the thousands” in terms of new jobs, Howell said.

The pandemic has since waylaid additional Delta Strong recruitment but the Delta Council is confident it can reengage soon, according to Gresham. “The Delta has some great economic developers,” he said.

For now, said Howell, the Delta Council and other Delta Strong supporters have been working hard “with our existing manufacturers and businesses to assist them in this unchartered time.”

With significant help from the state, the Delta region has been doubling down on its workforce training efforts, Howell said.

Also, for now, the Council has put a strong focus on retaining businesses in the region, Howell added.

Transportation improvements, especially money for fixing highways and bridges, have been a top priority for several years but neither Howell nor Gresham is predicting significant progress, especially after years of failed attempts to persuade state government to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars Mississippi needs to catch up on transportation infrastructure maintenance. “We will continue to present this issue and advocate for the fairest way we know how to raise the necessary revenue,” said Howell, insisting an increase in a motor fuels tax last raised in 1987 is the preferred approach.

While some federal help might be possible, the Delta Council and other proponents of more state transportation dollars have not given up on coming up with other creative approaches to address maintenance shortfalls, Howell and Gresham say.

Looking ahead on both the pandemic and economic fronts for the region, Gresham said he is confident “over the next several months things will get better.”

Delta dwellers are resilient and have faced much adversity since settling the region well over a century ago, Gresham said.

“It is a very uncertain time across so many issues that effect business and agriculture,” Howell said. “We have just got to put one foot in front of the other.”

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About Ted Carter