EPA AND CORPS PRESENT YAZOO BACKWATER PUMPING STATION PROPOSAL
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with the assistance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have reached a preferred approach to solve persistent flooding in the Yazoo Backwater Area of the South Delta, officials announced Thursday, May 4, 2023.
On Thursday, May 4, and Friday, May 5, 2023, Federal officials presented a recommended 3-part solution to backwater flooding that includes a 25,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) pumping station, non-structural options such as buy-outs, ring levees, and home elevations, and Federal agreements including compensatory mitigation planning.
The proposed plan would manage backwater flooding seasonally. The agencies worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and MS Agriculture Commission to understand the primary crops, crop seasons, days to reach maturity, and field preparation methods in the South Delta. The research showed soybeans, field corn, and cotton are the primary crops to be protected, and the estimated crop season for the pumps to actuate is March 25 through October 31 at the 2-year floodplain level of 90’. From November 1 through March 24, the non-crop season, the pump would be actuated at the 5-year floodplain level of 93’.
“This is an answer to a promise that was made over eighty years ago,” said Paul Hollis, Delta Council Past President, MS Levee Board Commissioner, and South Delta producer. “For those of us who live in the South Delta, it gives us hope that we have had before but was never followed through with. Having both the EPA and the Corps of Engineers working in the same room to come up with a comprehensive plan is unprecedented. This plan covers all the elements of environmental justice, environmental impacts, and flood control. This is truly a plan that has studied the science from all aspects. All of us who have suffered for so many years are grateful to Senator Roger Wicker, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, Congressman Bennie Thompson, EPA, and the Corp of Engineers for giving us a plan that meets all the challenges and requirements of the Yazoo Backwater Area.”
There were multiple presentation sessions held over the two days. The first session was held Thursday morning at the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge in Onward, where long-time Eagle Lake resident Ken Klaus was in attendance. “This is, I think, the first time we’ve heard something so positive, that we have a project that’s been worked on by both sides,” Klaus said to the panel. “And you’ve come together and brought something to us, for us — not only us, but for the wildlife and the agriculture. This is really exceptional.”
The additional meetings were held Thursday afternoon and evening and Friday at the Vicksburg District Corps building. On the presenting panel were Michael Connor, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works; Jeaneanne Gettle, Director of the Water Division, Region 4 for the EPA; Stacey Jensen, the Acting Director of Policy and Legislation in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works; Brian Frazer, Director of the Oceans, Wetlands and Communities Division, EPA; and Matt Strickler, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, along with a host of representatives from other Federal agencies lining the walls of the room at the Corps facility. There were also a large number of South Delta residents and other regional and State-wide proponents of the Pumps in attendance who thanked the panel for their timely and dedicated work toward a flood solution.
“Science matters. We put together a plan amongst the resource agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers that we think protects the interests that have been long at issue, which are the fish and wildlife resources and the wetland resources,” Connor said. “I haven’t seen any of the statements, but this is a science-based, technical plan intended to address the issues.”
“We can give thanks that the Army Corps, EPA, and other agencies kept their promise to go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan they all agree on,” U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith said in a press statement. “I am excited to say we are stepping onto new ground. After a lot of time, hard work, stakeholder meetings, and many trips to the South Delta, the Corps and cooperating Federal agencies support a single path forward. There is a long road ahead in terms of planning, design, funding, and construction of the pumping stations, but I am committed to doing everything I can to move this plan forward. Mississippians deserve this, and have for quite some time.”
“This is a great announcement. It’s a major step forward for South Delta residents who have been waiting decades for the Federal government to keep its promise, and also, to protect them from flooding,” U.S. Senator Roger Wicker said. “This water management plan would help prevent nearly all the flooding that has destroyed homes and businesses, ruined crops, and devastated wildlife. Also, this new plan would not have been possible without Federal officials hearing firsthand from the many South Delta residents who have shared their unfiltered stories of hardship and loss and frustration. I encourage all Mississippians who have been affected, who are interested in this issue, to continue sharing their stories and feedback on this proposal.”
This proposed plan differs from the previously approved, then vetoed, plan of a 14,000 CFS pumping station actuated at 87’, regardless of the season, which would alleviate flooding of all homes. The current proposed actuated pumping level would leave approximately two dozen homes projected to be inundated at the 90’ level. “If you look at those two dozen, 17 approximately already have some sort of floodproofing, but (partner agencies) would add to that if necessary,” EPA Yazoo Technical Lead Laura Shumway said. “So, you’re talking about approximately seven houses at that point. This was all conducted through windshield surveys.”
In comparison to the effects of the 2019 flood, the pumps, even at the proposed 90’ actuation point, would have saved 620 homes.
Also, in comparison to the 2019 flood, 548,000 acres of land were flooded for up to 7 months. Of these, 109,000 acres were cropland. The new proposed plan would allow 12,952 acres of farmland to flood before the pumps would turn on, allowing 96,048 acres to continue to be planted and harvested by small local farming operations that are the base of the South Delta economy.
“The community was delighted with the new plan, but they have asked the Federal agencies to go back and look to see if they could lower the pump-on elevations and start the crop season earlier in March,” explained MS Levee Board Vice-President Nott Wheeler, “The original plan for the Yazoo Backwater Project called for a 25,000 cfs pump that turned on at 80'. We acknowledge that we have to compromise to get this project built - but our people have given up 10' to 13' of protection for the environment.”
“The Yazoo Backwater Project Proposal presentation was a great day for the Finish the Pumps grassroots campaign, as well as a needed injection of hope for the battered South Delta,” said Finish the Pumps board member and South Delta resident Anne Dahl. “In my opinion, the EPA has taken the courageous step to admit that they had it wrong for the last 15 years. They are finally cutting through the politics and outside pressure and, as they stated yesterday, are now “following the science” and ensuring they are complying with the Clean Water Act and any other policies and procedures.”
These May sessions are followed by a series of community engagement sessions in Vicksburg lasting ten hours on February 15, 2023. Attending this meeting were also Michael Connor, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works; Jeaneanne Gettle, Director of the Water Division, Region 4 for the EPA; Stacey Jensen, the Acting Director of Policy and Legislation in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works; and Brian Frazer, Director of the Oceans, Wetlands and Communities Division, EPA. The panel listened intently to dozens of first-hand accounts from South Deltans and proponents of the Pumps and took into account their information and comments to formulate the new proposed project that is now on the table.
The Corps and EPA established an aggressive five-month timeline in a January 9, 2023, joint memorandum.
Joint Army-EPA Collaboration Memorandum in place Establish external engagement strategy Project delivery team identified
Deliver agreed-upon process to establish scope of wetland impacts Finalize criteria for any compensatory mitigation needed for a future project Initiate external engagement
Mapping products delivered Deliver agreed-upon wetland functional assessment criteria
Stakeholder engagement on preliminary findings recommendation
Synthesize analysis and stakeholder feedback into a recommendation
Army delivers preferred approach(es) for flood risk reduction solution(s) for the Yazoo Backwater Area
Comment cards were made available at the community engagement sessions for feedback from the public, but there is also an online project comment section available at https://www.mvk.usace.army.mil/Missions/Programs-and-Project-Management/Yazoo-Backwater/. You can also visit mvk.usace.army.mil and click the red banner at the top of that page that says “Visit the Yazoo Backwater Project Page” to review the presentation and submit a comment.