Statement of Tracy Harden
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
Subcommittee on Chemical Safety, Waste Management,
Environmental Justice and Regulatory Oversight
July 22, 2021
Chairman Merkley, Ranking Member Wicker, thank you for the opportunity to testify at today’s hearing
Examining Current Issues Adversely Affecting Environmental Justice Populations.
My name is Tracy Harden, and I live in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, where I own and operate Chuck’s Dairy
Bar. Today’s hearing is very timely and a needed examination of the long-standing environmental
injustice occurring in the Mississippi Delta.
Federal agencies are required to identify and address disproportionately high adverse human health or
environmental effects of Federal actions to minority and/or low-income populations. In my testimony
today, I would like to provide the committee a real-life example of how Federal actions (or inaction)
have disproportionately affected minority and low-income populations.
The South Mississippi Delta, made up of Humphreys, Issaquena, Sharkey, Warren, Washington, and
Yazoo Counties, is one of the poorest areas of the nation—27% of those in the South Delta live below
the poverty line, and more than 62% of residents are minorities, and only 18% went to college. Floods –
or preparation for floods – were a constant fixture of my childhood. Every spring, we would pack all our
most treasured possessions and what we needed to survive and put them out of the water’s reach and
be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
My mother was a school bus driver. When the water would rise, she would have to drive her bus route
on the river levee and hours out of the way to simply get kids to school. But the South Delta flooding
that marked my childhood has been a periodic occurrence much longer than that.
One of the earliest documented floods was the flood of 1927. According to the Mississippi Department
of Archives and Historyi, heavy rains that occurred in the Mid-West in the fall of 1926 caused the
Mississippi River to overflow across 11 states from Illinois to Louisiana. In the Spring of 1927, additional
heavy rains across the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta in northwest Mississippi made a bad situation worse.
Levees that had been built along the Mississippi gave way, and the city of Greenville and other towns
across the Mississippi Delta were flooded. Then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover called it “the
greatest disaster of peace times in our history.” In the end, 246 people lost their lives, 700,000 people
were displaced from their homes and 23,000 square miles were flooded.
That flood led to the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928 by which the federal government
assumed responsibility for managing the Mississippi River System, which included the construction of
levees, floodways, cutoffs and channel improvements and 22 other pumping plants within 200 miles of
us. Subsequent legislation in 1936 expanded the federal responsibility to the sub-basins within the
Mississippi River Valley, including the Yazoo Basin of Mississippi. In 1941, Congress approved raising the
height of the Mississippi River levee on its west bank, which would inevitably result in more water
backing up the Yazoo River – a main tributary – on the east (Mississippi) side of the river. Described as a
compromise, Congress also specifically authorized the Yazoo Backwater Project which was designed and
intended to address flooding which occurs in the Yazoo Basin but cannot drain into the Mississippi River
because of high river levels from water flowing from upstream.
The Yazoo Backwater Project is comprised of three key features—the levee completed in 1978 along the
Yazoo River to keep water within the river during high water; the Steele Bayou water control gates on
the Yazoo River completed in 1969 to prevent the Mississippi River from flowing backwards into the
South Delta during high water; and the final, unfinished feature—a set of pumps to pump water over
the levee when the gates are closed. This system is interconnected, and without all three functioning
features, the system does not work. A map showing this area is attached to my testimony in Appendix
So what we have today is a large area protected by a complex system of levees and floodgates to keep
the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers from entering the Yazoo Backwater Area – the protected side of the
levee. However, these federally constructed features also prevent rainwater from leaving the area, thus
trapping the water within the 4,093 square mile drainage basin. Without a pumping station to remove
the trapped water, this area effectively becomes an artificial lake. The Yazoo Backwater Area is the only
major backwater area in the Mississippi River and Tributaries (MR&T) project area that does not have a
pumping plant. A map showing the these other structures is attached to my statement in Appendix B.
In 1973, flooding inundated more than 1 million acres because the Yazoo Backwater Levee was not
complete. Although the completion of the Yazoo Backwater Levee in 1978 and the Steele Bayou
Structure in 1969 have ensured that there has not been a flood of that magnitude since, make no
mistake—there is still devastating flooding in the Delta.
I moved away from Eagle Lake in 2004 and thought I was escaping the annual threat of flooding.
Shortly after I moved, I married my husband Tim, who is here with me today. He was a farmer. In 2006,
we sold our farm and purchased Chuck’s Dairy bar in Rolling Fork, which has been in business since
1977. It is a fixture in Sharkey County—one of the few we have to serve our small, 75% minority
community. It’s a local hangout for farmers, hunters, students, and everyone in Rolling Fork, and we try
to keep our prices low to make sure all our neighbors, 33.5% of whom are living below the poverty line,
However, since we purchased Chuck’s in 2006, we have seen seven of the 12 worst backwater floods on
record since the levees were completed in 1978: this year, water rose to 91.8 feet; in 2016—92 feet;
2008—92.2 feet; 2009—93.7 feet; 2018—95.2 feet; 2020—96.9 feet; and worst of all, 2019, when the
water rose to a devastating 98.2 feet.
The 2019 flood inundated 548,000 acres, including 231,000 acres of cropland and 686 homes. Water
was so high, we were fractions of an inch away from losing critical infrastructure, such as sewer systems.
We call it the “Forgotten Backwater Flood” because it received so little national attention. Despite
shattering many records. From April 2018 to March 2019, the South Delta received more rainfall than in
any 12-month period since 1895. Flood duration records were broken by as much as 125 days since the
flood of 1927.
This annual flooding has an enormous, lasting impact on the region well beyond folks not being able to
frequent Chuck’s Dairy Bar because they’re not making a paycheck. Populations are decreasing,
economic opportunity is fleeting, and lives and livelihoods are being lost.
For example, my friend, Mr. Anderson Jones, Sr. has been displaced from his home since 2019. He had
federal flood insurance, and he built three levees around his house to keep the water out. Each of them
ultimately failed – which highlights the lack of understanding of environmental extremists from
California and New York who advocate “alternatives” to the pumps. If you can’t get to your house
because it’s surrounded by water, you cannot maintain the levee. Even then, your septic system and
water well don’t work. Plus, you need a pump to pump out the rainwater and seepwater inside the ring
levee, otherwise your house will flood from within! There were homes that were inundated for 6
months or more. Sadly, two residents lost their lives in the 2019 flood when trying to drive through
flooded water, they drowned.
In 2019, we saw the worst of it. But unfortunately, we, the residents of the South Delta, know we
haven’t seen the last of it.
What we desperately need to abate the annual flooding in the Yazoo Backwater Basin is the final
component of the project: the backwater pumps. The backwater pumps are not a partisan issue –
President Clinton signed legislation which restored full federal funding responsibility for the project. The
last administration finalized a record of decision on a re-designed project to allow the construction
process to resume. We’ve been blessed with strong support and leadership from our representatives,
Representative Bennie Thompson, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, and of course, Senator Wicker—thank
you. Today, I’m appealing to the rest of Congress and the Biden Administration to help us finally
complete the puzzle.
The Army Corps’ new project is itself a compromise. The original 1982 plan for this project called for a
pump that could move 17,500 cubic feet of water per second and would be activated at a water
elevation of 80 feet. The new project includes a 14,000 cubic feet of water per second pump and does
not activate until 87 feet. The area of the Yazoo basin is over 4,000 square miles and over 2.6 million
acres – larger than the area of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. This compromise project also has
the support of various environmental groups—such as the Mississippi Wildlife Federation and the
Nature Conservancy, who noted that alternatives to flood control are meaningless without completion
of the pumps.
The two counties most impacted by backwater flooding in recent years – Issaquena County and Sharkey
County – are communities deserving of environmental justice. 71% of the population in these counties
are minority, and 30% of the population lives below the poverty line.
In its environmental justice analysis, the Corps of Engineers has concluded that the backwater pumps
would specifically benefit our communities of color. A recent story in the Washington Post ii highlights
the difficulty that minority homeowners have had accessing assistance from natural disasters. Our
community is no exception.
Agriculture and recreational hunting are the economic base of the South Delta. When a flood occurs, not
only are people out of their homes, both of those economic engines of our area are shut down and as a
result, our entire community is affected—whether you work in agriculture, banking, restaurants, or
stores. Alternatives to flood control that don’t allow farmers to plant also mean that businesses like
mine can’t survive and my employees and my neighbors aren’t able to make a paycheck. It is truly
devastating to our already impoverished region and people.
The second of the three pieces of the Yazoo Backwater Project was completed in 1978. We have had
floods in 3 of the last 4 years; 8 in the last 10 whether it is because of climate change or bad luck.
Congress and the Army Corps made a promise to the people of the South Delta eighty years ago to
complete this life and livelihood-saving project; not doing so disparately impacts people of color and the
poor. It is the definition of an environmental injustice, and we need your help to Finish the Pumps.
On behalf of my family, neighbors, friends, and community, thank you for the opportunity to testify.