EPA, Army Corps Square Off Over Mississippi Delta Drainage Plan

Published April 1, 2008

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers are squaring off over an Army Corps proposal to seasonally drain 67,000 acres of wetlands adjacent to the lower Mississippi River.

The Army Corps wants to spend $220 million to build a pumping station in the Yazoo River Basin. It argues the taxpayer-funded project is necessary to protect agricultural lands and approximately 1,000 homes from potential flooding.

EPA says the project’s goals do not justify altering wetlands that are vital to regional fish and wildlife. It has notified the Army Corps it plans to veto the proposal unless the Corps can provide sufficient evidence the feared environmental impacts will not occur.

EPA Emphasizes Wildlife

“EPA has had longstanding concerns about this project because it would impact aquatic ecosystems on a massive scale, affecting approximately 67,000 acres of wetlands,” EPA Deputy Regional Administrator Lawrence Starfield wrote to the Army Corps on February 1.

“EPA has participated in the review of this project since before the release of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) in 2000,” Starfield continued. “During that time and subsequent to the DSEIS release, EPA has consistently expressed concerns with the significant environmental effects of the structural component of this project.”

Starfield emphasized the importance of the wetlands to regional wildlife.

“The Yazoo Backwater Area includes some of the richest wetland and aquatic resources in the Nation, including highly productive fisheries, a highly productive yet increasingly rare bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem, hemispherically important migratory bird foraging grounds, habitat for endangered species, and wetlands providing a suite of important ecological support functions,” wrote Starfield.

“EPA supports the goal of providing improved flood protection for the residents of the Mississippi Delta; however, we believe that accomplishment of this vital objective can be fully consistent with ensuring effective protection for the area’s valuable natural resources,” Starfield added.

Corps Focuses on Property

Army Corps officials maintain the proposed pumping station would not have as much environmental impact as EPA and environmental activist groups claim. The Corps notes it would operate the pump only to drain water into the adjacent Mississippi River when floodwaters in the Yazoo River Basin reach exceedingly high levels.

The Army Corps has planned to build the Yazoo River Basin pump station since 1941, but until now it has always had higher-priority concerns that placed the proposed facility on the back burner. Local property owners and elected officials support the project to protect their property from severe floods.

EPA has rarely used its Clean Water Act authority to veto Army Corps projects. It last exercised the power in 1981.

Taxpayer Groups Weigh In

The EPA veto threat united many taxpayer watchdogs who object to profligate government spending that benefits relatively few landowners, and environmental activist groups who place a high importance on protecting wetlands.

“It’s hard to believe that the Environmental Protection Agency could ever be a friend of taxpayers, but it’s shaping up to be so if it vetoes the Yazoo pump project,” observed the Clarion (Mississippi) Ledger in a February 6 house editorial.

“The project, conceived in the 1940s when every ‘swamp’ was only waiting to be drained, is woefully outdated. It’s environmentally and fiscally nonsensical,” explained the Ledger.

“EPA has noted it will help only a ‘few landowners in the region’ and is ‘formulated principally to protect the owners [of that land],’ ” the Ledger added.

Activist Groups Oppose Plan

“Contrary to the Corps’ claims, residential flooding in the Yazoo Pumps project area is extremely limited, and there are far more effective ways to address what limited flooding there is than by building a $220 million pumping plant designed to drain wetlands and marginal agricultural lands,” said Melissa Samet, senior director of water resources for the environmentalist group American Rivers.

“During the 24-year period from 1979 to 2002, only 62 properties within the Yazoo Pumps project area filed flood insurance claims under the National Flood Insurance Program. Collectively, these properties filed 209 claims for damages totaling $1.664 million. At that rate, it would take more than 3,173 years to recoup the $220 million construction investment in the Yazoo Pumps,” Samet explained.

“Even the Corps of Engineers recognizes that the Yazoo Pumps are not designed to protect communities from flooding,” Samet added. “More than 80 percent of the project’s benefits are from agriculture, and the majority of those benefits will go to large landowners.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News.