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It's back: Failed Yazoo Pump project added to bill by a Senate committee

PUMP IT: A Senate appropriations draft bill has a rider that would resuscitate the Yazoo Pumps project that critics say could destroy vital wetlands. Photo by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

A project on Mississippi's Yazoo River that was cancelled in 2008 and which critics say is wasteful spending and destructive to the environment is being revived in a draft of a Senate appropriations bill.

The Yazoo Backwater Area Pumps Project was designed, say its advocates, to prevent backwater flooding on the Yazoo River, which drains much of the south Delta before it enters the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg. The project — which was scuttled by the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency — has been on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' infrastructure to-do list since before 1941 and was supposed to cost $220 million, with annual maintenance costs running about $2.1 million.

The Yazoo Pumps project would have consisted of one of the largest pumping stations ever built — with a pumping capacity of 14,000 cubic feet per second — that would remove water from than 630,000 acres of marginal farmland between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers during floods on the Mississippi River. This area, known as the Yazoo backwater, floods every other year and the pumping station on Steele Bayou would send the floodwaters to the Mississippi.

The rider was added to the draft bill by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), a big supporter of the project. The rider states that the Corps will immediately start construction on the project immediately "without delay or administrative or judicial review." The bill will need to be approved in committee before it heads to the full Senate for a vote.

"It is hard to overstate what a waste of money the Yazoo Pumps project is, how few people would benefit and how much damage it would to do wildlife and waterfowl habitat,” said Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, in a news release by the Sierra Club. "The Bush administration was wise to put a stake through the project’s heart a decade ago. Congress should not try to resurrect it now."

The project was first approved in 1941 by Congress, but has faced both budgetary and environmental issues that prevented the Corps from starting construction. The project was vetoed by the EPA in 2008, only the 12th time the agency has exercised that authority under the Clean Water Act since it would've damaged wetlands in the Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, and the Delta National Forest.

The EPA and an independent hydrology study found that building the pumping station would damage more than 200,000 acres of wetlands and harm fisheries and wildlife. Even the Corps acknowledged that 67,000 acres of wetlands would be destroyed, an area only slightly smaller than the city of Jackson (72,480 acres). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also been critical of the project.

"The Yazoo Pumps project would be a catastrophe for the environment and taxpayers,” said Bob Irvin, President and CEO of American Rivers in a news release. "This rider would toss out our nation’s legal processes and principles to ensure this particular project is never assessed by scientists, commented on by the public or reviewed by a judge.

"But these laws exist precisely so taxpayers don’t get stuck footing the bill for disastrous schemes like this one."

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