The Environmental Protection Agency has decided to prohibit construction of the Yazoo Backwater Project, a 60-year-old U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan that promised to end decades of flooding in the south Delta of Mississippi.
Caving in to pressure from environmental groups, EPA said it was using its authority under the Clean Water Act to stop the project so that officials could “identify a better project that reduces flooding, protects the environment and saves taxpayer dollars.”
The action came despite the fact the state's two Republican senators had questioned whether the agency had the legal authority to veto construction of the Yazoo Pumps Project. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker had written EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, asking him not to intervene in the project.
Members of the Mississippi Levee Board, the chief sponsor for the Yazoo Backwater Project, said they were appalled by the decision and were reviewing the Final Determination issued by EPA to determine their next step.
“Having recently been threatened by Hurricane Gustav, it is a sad day for our community to have the EPA condemn our people and economy to continued flooding without relief,” the Levee Board said in a statement.
The Corps of Engineers has been advocating the pumps since it began developing the current flood control system for the lower Mississippi Valley in the 1960s. The latest plan for the Yazoo Backwater Project called for a 14,000 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) pumping station and 55,600 acres of reforestation.
The pumps would have lowered the 100-year flood by 4.5 feet and reduced the frequency and duration of flood events caused by high water on the Mississippi River. The reforestation would have targeted existing frequently flooded farmland and returned it to bottomland hardwood trees.
Despite numerous concessions made by the Corps to try to make the project more environmentally friendly, environmental groups applauded EPA's decision to bring the project to a halt.
The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Defense Fund said the agency made a “scientifically sound and financially wise decision” to stop the flood control project, which it claimed would have caused widespread damage to tens of thousands of acres of protected land.
Although Assistant Administrator Benjamin H. Grumbles claimed EPA was working with other state and federal agencies to identify an alternative project, supporters of the project said the agency had refused requests by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to delay the veto process and discuss possible alternatives.
“From the moment EPA began its veto process under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Mississippi Levee Board tried repeatedly to impress upon EPA the economic and environmental benefits of the Yazoo Backwater Project,” one official said. “Despite many meetings, comment letters and other efforts, EPA was determined to prevent this important project from going forward.
“This veto is wrong on so many levels,” said Peter Nimrod, chief engineer for the Mississippi Levee Board. “The project was modified over the years to enhance environmental benefits. The Corps' recommended plan would provide for 55,600 acres of reforestation of cleared agricultural land, as well as structural flood control for the community.”
Nimrod said Cochran and Wicker advised the agency they had serious concerns about EPA's legal authority to veto a federally authorized water resources project. “The Mississippi Levee Board also provided EPA with a legal analysis showing that federally authorized projects are not subject to CWA Section 404(c). EPA reached a contrary opinion, which will need to be thoroughly evaluated.”
In its discussions with EPA, Nimrod said Levee Board members were shocked at the unwillingness of the agency's decision-makers to look for alternatives with the impacted parties. “This is one of the most offensive aspects, since EPA says it is willing to consider alternatives, but has never suggested an alternative or been willing to seriously engage in discussions about the community's needs.”
“EPA has admittedly been reviewing the project for over 30 years and has failed to provide any practical alternative for providing flood protection to the people in the south Delta other than move, get a boat, swim or drown,” said Ruby Johnson, a resident of Cary, Miss., and advocate for flood control.