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The Yazoo Backwater Area, the Steele Bayou Drainage Structure, and the Yazoo Pump

Steele Bayou Drainage Structure

The Yazoo Backwater Area is flooded and the Yazoo Backwater Pump, cancelled by the EPA administrator is back in the news. On March 28, 2011, the Pacific Legal Foundation, representing the Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners filed an appeal of a 2008 EPA ruling that trashed the Yazoo Pump. The PLF is representing the levee board without charge. It is a donor-funded legal watchdog foundation that argues on behalf of a balanced approach to environmental issues across the country, couching its arguments in terms of limited government and individual property rights.

When Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers to wrap the mainline levee along the Mississippi around the the north bank of the Yazoo River and extend the levee to the valley wall, it assured that the interior streams in the Yazoo Basin would pond behind the levee, particularly if they were in flood. To alleviate the flooding, the Corps built the Steele Bayou Drainage Structure, which could be closed when the flooded Mississippi backed up into the Yazoo, thus prevented the Yazoo from flooding the lower third of its basin. Once flooding along the Mississippi and the Yazoo drained away, the Corps could open the drainage structure and allow the ponding inside the structure to drain away. Congress authorized the levee, it  also promised landowners in the region a pump to siphon water ponding behind the levee if the Yazoo was too flooded to open the drainage structure. That was back in 1941. The Corps cancelled the pump in 1959. The pump was unnecessary. The Mississippi was doing a good enough job of moving floods downstream.

But the plans for the pump remained on the Corps drafting boards, and were reformulated in 1982 issued an Environmental Impact Statement on the project.

The 1986 Water Resources Development Act required the beneficiaries of water projects to come up with 25% of the cost of a project with in-kind contributions–easements and rights-of way–the major components of the pump. The Mississippi Levee Board lost interest. In 1991 the governor of Mississippi asked the Corps of Engineers to redesign flood control for the Yazoo Backwater Area. Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran relieve the levee board of its share of the cost when Congress passed the 1996 Water Resources Development Act. At that time the pump would cost $181 million and be capable to spewing six million gallons of water per minute over the Steele Bayou Drainage Structure. At that rate the pump would be capable of sucking dry wetlands  managed for wildlife habitat in the Delta National Forest, Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, and Issaquena County Game Management Area, and areas, like the Lake George Reforestation Project. It would put at risk wetlands on private lands in the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Conservation Reserve Program, which represent a $30 million investment on the part of the federal government. Environmentalists, the EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which by law must analyze all Corps water projects, hated it and came up with their own proposals for the Yazoo Backwater Area.

Complicating the issue was the Big Sunflower dredging project, designed to speed floodwater off the lands surrounding the Big Sunflower River, thus assuring that they would pond behind the backwater levee. Senators Todd and Cochran also persuaded their colleagues to forgive the beneficiaries of the cost of that project, terming it an update of dredging done in the 50s and 60s. The environmentalists were not happy with that project either and lost that battle.

The EPA put forth a proposal that encompassed both projects, the Lower Yazoo River Basin Economic and Environmental Restoration Initiative,

a $170 million proposal that included flood protection for structures and businesses, as well as roads, sewer, and infrastructure improvements. The plan took into account environmental and human health issues, proposed economic development through ecotourism, and included a proposal for a new National Wildlife Refuge and a Delta Interpretative Center.

The Corps rejected their suggested alternatives, citing the $121 million cost for the one-time purchase of easements of economically marginal farmland along the Big Sunflower as too expensive. Economists hired by Fish and Wildlife calculated that the cost would be $77 million. Add in revenue from timber sales it would go down to $32 to $34 million.

While the engineers rejected the alternatives even though such an easement would accommodate a twenty-five year flood and dredging only a one-to-three year flood, and even though the river would silt up again and require more dredging, environmental protests did achieve a more sensitive dredging project. The Corps of Engineers removed the reaches of the Big Sunflower with the greatest concentration of mussels from the dredging plan and restricted dredging to the center third of the channel in order to leave the shallow waters along the banks undisturbed.

The Corps denied that it was using Big Sunflower River Maintenance Project to justify the Yazoo Pump, denied that the Yazoo Pump would drain wetlands for agriculture, damage two hundred thousand acres of wetlands, or destroy the best of the remaining bottomland hardwood forests in the basin. The Corps insisted that the pump required no compensatory mitigation, but it would reforest 62,500 acres of agricultural lands anyway, if the lands were available in the region within one year of the completion of the project. If not, then the Corps would purchase the lands outright from willing sellers. If the agency could not find enough willing sellers in the backwater region, it would look elsewhere in the alluvial valley. Whatever land the agency acquired would be reforested and turned over to a wildlife management agency. Finally, the Corps denied that the pump would cost too much for too little benefit: $181 million to protect real estate worth $40 million and agricultural benefits worth $25.6 million. Those folks who would benefit from both projects supported them and were backed by their two very powerful Mississippi senators, Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, who had relieved them of their share of the cost of the projects.[i]

In January 2008 the head of the EPA cancelled the project.


[i] Beorkrem, Mark, and Sarthou, Cynthia, Destruction by Design: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Continuing Assault on America’s Environment, Gulf Restoration Network, December 14, 1999, 11, 23; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg District, “Yazoo Backwater Reformulation, http://www.mvk.usace.army.mil.offices/pp/Yazoobackwater/news.asp?category=news;  http://www.mvk.usace.army.mil.offices/pp/Yazoobackwater/faq.asp?category=home, March 19, 2001; United States Environmental Protection Agency, Region 4, Special Projects, “Lower Yazoo River Basin Economic and Environmental Restoration Initiative,” http://www.epa/gov/region4/water/specialprojects/yazoo/investment/htm,  March 26, 2001; Delta Land Trust, “Just the Facts on the Big Sunflower Project 7-2004,” http://www.deltalandtrust.org/BSRFacts.htm U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg District, Yazoo Backwater Area Reformulation: Main Report, September, 2000, 99, http://www.mvk.usace.army.mil/offices/pp/Yazoobackwater/docs/00main.pdf; Clean Water Network, “Yazoo Backwater Pumping Plant Project,” http://www.cwn.org/docs/programs/wetlands/backwater.htm; Clean Water Network, “Big Sunflower River Maintenance Project,” http://www.cwn.org/docs/programs/wetlands/sunflower.htm; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Yazoo Backwater Area: Technical Review of the Draft Reformulation Report: Cumulative Impacts in the Yazoo Basin,” November 2, 2000, http://www.epa.gov/region4/water/specialprojects/yazoo/review.htm#t1

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