Delta leaders seeking renewed effort to complete Upper Yazoo Basin Projects

EPA failed to keep its promise to revisit its ruling that blocked construction of the Steele Bayou Pumping Project, left South Delta unprotected.

The Upper Yazoo Projects that could include a decades-old proposal for a pumping station designed to prevent flooding along the Yazoo River in the South Mississippi Delta apparently will have to wait a while longer.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials confirmed that President Trump’s executive budget contained no funding for the Upper Yazoo Project or UYP, the last of the Mississippi River and Tributaries flood control measures, during a hearing held by the Mississippi River Commission in Greenville, Miss.

“As with the Delta Headwaters Project, there is no funding in the FY17 President’s Budget for the UYP,” said Col. Michael C. Derosier, commander of the Vicksburg District for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, during an update on a 16-page list of work being conducted by the Vicksburg District.

The hearing, which was held on board the Motor Vessel MISSISSIPPI, while it was docked in the Greenville Harbor, was one of several conducted by the Mississippi River Commissioners during their 2017 High Water Inspection Trip down the river.

Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council, the organization representing the 18 Delta and part-Delta Counties in Mississippi, acknowledged the omission of the UYP in his remarks to the Mississippi River Commissioners.

‘Outcome above zero’

“It was reported by the Colonel earlier today that we have been zeroed out – once again – by the Executive Budget request, which does not speak well for those of us in this room who have advocated on behalf of flood control and navigation,” said Morgan, who has been working to have the UYP completed for most of his career with Delta Council.

“I would also ask, from Delta Council’s perspective, that the Mississippi River Commission convene those of us in this audience who are advocates to come up with a strategy that comes out with an outcome above zero.”

Removing the threat of flooding from the Mississippi and Yazoo River Basins has been one of the priorities of the Delta Council since its founding in 1935. The 1927 Flood on the Lower Mississippi is often cited as one of the reasons the Council was organized.

“The Mississippi River Levee, the Flow Line Report and the federally-authorized flood control plans for the Yazoo Basin are very important to our region, and without the constant vigilance of our two elected levee boards, the Mississippi River Commission and the Corps of Engineers all else in our region becomes secondary,” said Morgan.

“We were reminded of that three times in the last eight years where we were flooded and threatened with larger floods,” he said. “We were only protected by the projects y’all have built to date.”

2011 flooding most severe

The most severe of those floods occurred in 2011 when the Mississippi River reached a record crest of 54 feet at Vicksburg, Miss. But the Mississippi Levee System operated as designed, in part, because floodways at Birds Point in Missouri, Morganza, La., and Bonnet Carre in Louisiana were opened.

The Flow Line Report cited by Morgan is being conducted to analyze what changes need to be made in the flood control mechanisms in the Lower Mississippi Valley, including such areas as the Yazoo Basin.

Efforts to control flooding in the lower Mississippi River Valley date back to the origination of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project in 1928, one year after the massive flooding that caused hundreds of deaths and massive property damage in 1927.

In the 1970s, the Corps of Engineers installed a flood gate at Steele Bayou near where the Yazoo River empties into the Mississippi to prevent floodwater from the Mississippi from backing up into the Yazoo Basin.

Since then, the Delta Council, other Mississippi organizations, the Mississippi River Commission and the Corps of Engineers have developed plans for a pumping station that would lift water out of the Yazoo River when flooding occurs in the lower Mississippi Delta.

EPA wetlands ruling

Those plans were dealt a major setback when the Environmental Protection Agency ruled in August of 2008 that the proposed discharge of fill material into 43.6 acres of wetlands and other waters of the U.S. from the pumping project would result in “unacceptable adverse effects on at least 67,000 acres of wetlands and their associated wildlife and fisheries resources.”

EPA acknowledged that 630,000 acres of land in the South Delta were subject to periodic flooding when the Steele Bayou gates were closed, but that the negative impact on wetlands and wildlife and fisheries outweighed the impact of the floods. The agency also pledged to develop an alternative proposal to the Steele Bayou Pumping Project.

The Yazoo Basin reportedly is the largest watershed on the eastern side of the Mississippi River with the exception of the Ohio River Basin, Morgan noted. A total of 4,000 square miles of watershed drains through the Steele Bayou gates.

“You’ve heard Peter Nimrod (chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board) and others say the other watersheds that are designed to be backwater watersheds are complete,” he said. “The Yazoo Basin Watershed is not complete, and the land that drains through the Steele Bayou gates encompasses both levee districts in the Mississippi Delta.

“We have a tremendous job ahead of us in figuring out a way that the Environmental Protection Agency committed to figure out for us and has failed to do so. We appreciate your letter, General Wehr, requesting they revisit an area that has not been visited to come up with an alternative to the alternative we feel is the best today and we felt was best in 2008.”

‘Sense of obligation’

Morgan said Delta Council continues to believe the pumping project is a priority, “and we feel a deep sense of obligation to the people in that region who have developed that land, which is over 600,000 acres, that if we’re going to take water out of my backyard and send it to them we have to have a way to convey it to the Mississippi River.”

Morgan and other speakers said they believe Congress should expand the mission of the Army Corps of Engineers to include work on water supply issues.

“This is a multi-billion industry annually in our region and in the whole valley,” he said. “Gene Sullivan’s (executive director of the Bayou Meto Water Management District) name has been mentioned and many others who have worked on this issue.

“Without available agricultural irrigation water supplies, it’s very simple,” Morgan noted. “Agriculture in the Mid-South is not world price competitive because we cannot make the yields that are essential to make us world price competitive without irrigation.”

The Corps of Engineers’ expertise in the areas necessary to solve the problems with groundwater declines is unmatched, “And we recognize that a water resources policy will have to be addressed in order to expand this mission,” Morgan said. We would ask the Mississippi River Commission to weigh in and help us in that effort.”

Maintenance ‘highest priority’

He asked the Commission and the Corps of Engineers to continue to give “highest priority” to the maintenance of the existing Mississippi River and Tributaries Program, although it is only 89 percent complete.

“Absent the commerce generated by the Mississippi River and its tributaries it is very doubtful the 33,000 jobs in our jobs that rely totally on agriculture would be here,” he noted. “There are people in this room who would not be here were it not for agriculture in this region. Without the Mississippi River Commission and the Corps of Engineers we wouldn’t have to discuss that.”

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