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Despite omnibus defeat, advocates still seek money for Yazoo pumps project

RIVER: The Mississippi River Commission met in Greenville last week aboard the M.V. Mississippi. Photo by Steve Wilson

Despite funding being left out of the recently passed omnibus spending bill, advocates for a controversial pump project in the Yazoo River basin aren't ready to abandon it.

Mississippi Levee Board President Fred Ballard Jr. and chief engineer Peter Nimrod both told the Mississippi River Commission at their meeting in Greenville on April 18 that building the pumps is essential to preventing the flooding of farmland in the Yazoo River basin, which they say causes massive economic and environmental damage.

Critics say the $220 million project is a financial boondoggle, could harm wildlife and result in the destruction of thousands of acres of wetlands.

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 of water per second — that would removed floodwater 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've sent the floodwater to the Mississippi.

"Since 2008, if the pumps would've been in place, it would've prevented about $380 million in ag damages," Nimrod said during the meeting. "That would've paid for the $220 million project. It's very economically viable."

Nimrod also said the pump project funding, $400 million, was the victim of a political battle involving a multi-billion dollar tunnel project between New York and New Jersey. The language in the omnibus bill that would've authorized it was removed by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan in conference between the House and Senate.

"The south Mississippi delta, we're very pissed and we're very upset," Nimrod said about the omnibus bill. "We're frustrated, but we haven't given up."

This year's flood, said Nimrod, inundated 450,000 acres in the south delta, including 170,000 acres of farmland and 280,000 of forest.

He also said the Levee Board will be looking to get the funding for the pumps in the next appropriations cycle and will try to obtain approval from the EPA, which previously killed the project in 2008.

A court challenge by the Levee Board to overturn the decision was denied in 2011. The EPA's torpedoing of the project was only the 12th time it had overturned a project under the Clean Water Act.

"The people are against this project do not live here," Ballard said. "They'd love to see hundreds of millions of dollars spent in their areas rather than the Mississippi south delta. It's easy to spread lies and misinformation about our project when they don't care. One day, we'll get these pumps and one day we'll enjoy the same flood protection benefits as others in the lower Mississippi River valley."

HOST: The Mississippi River Commission was conducting its annual high-water inspection tour when it held a meeting in Greenville about the M.V. Mississippi. Photo by Steve Wilson

"I think the Commission realizes this project is needed and is necessary," Major General Richard Kaiser, the new president of the MRC, said.

He wasn't the only MRC member to voice support for the pumps project.

"This project was authorized in 1941 and here we are today and still haven't started anything," said MRC civilian board member Sam Angle. "I don't know how anyone can say flooding is good for wood land. I think everyone needs to work toward getting these pumps put in."

Not everyone supports the pumps. Lindsey Lemmons of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation told the MRC that building the project would reduce the amount of farm land that's been converted back to wetlands and that the population of the area that would be serviced by the pumps has decreased 10 percent since 2007, thus skewing the cost/benefit analysis of the project.

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).

According to the EPA, 80 percent of the Mississippi River's alluvial valley's bottom land forested wetlands have already been lost.

The affected area includes the Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge and the Delta National Forest.

Former U.S. Senator Thad Cochran added a rider to a draft appropriation bill last year that not only would've re-authorized the project, but also squelched any potential dissent.

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