Yazoo River Basin proposal would impact wetlands, EPA says

Published 7:20 pm Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Environmental Protection Agency has reservations about a planned $220 million pump project in the lower Mississippi Delta region.

“This proposed project is expected to impact as many as 67,000 acres of some of the richest wetland and aquatic resources in the nation. EPA is committed to keeping the nation’s waters clean and protecting our wetlands,” Benjamin Grumbles, EPA’s assistant administrator for water, said in a statement to The Clarion-Ledger newspaper.

“In the coming weeks, EPA will also decide whether to take additional steps, such as revising or prohibiting the project under our Clean Water Act authorities,” Grumbles said.

In December, the National Wildlife Federation and other conservation groups called on the EPA to stop the project. They said the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan would “drain and damage life-sustaining wetlands in Mississippi” and threaten a wide array of fish and wildlife.

The Yazoo Backwater Project was authorized by Congress in 1941. It has undergone multiple revisions. The goal is to remove rainwater from the lower Delta that becomes impounded inside levees when the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers are at higher stages.

For several decades, installing giant pumps near the confluence of the Yazoo and Steele Bayou, which drains much of the Delta, was the plan. That proposal has been modified.

In November, the corps defended building the pumps in a crucial environmental report.

The agency says the pumps would reduce flooding by as much as 4 1/2 feet in the region, but critics say the project is emblematic of the corps’ flawed bureaucratic process that pours money into wasteful projects while urgent needs go unmet. Also, critics say the pumps would destroy up to 200,000 acres of wetlands.

The corps’ final environmental impact statement, the one released in November, is one step toward getting the project under way. The agency now will hold public meetings before handing the report over to top engineers for their approval.

Grumbles’ comments come after the EPA last week criticized the project in a letter sent to the Corps of Engineers. In the letter, the EPA said the project had not substantially changed since the corps last proposed it in 2000.

“It appears … that no substantive modifications have been made to the structural components of the Recommended Plan since November 2000 and that the nature and extent of anticipated environmental impacts continue to be highly significant,” Lawrence Starfield, EPA’s deputy administrator for the Southeast, wrote in the Jan. 22 letter.

Corps spokesman Frank Worley said the EPA letter was part of the ongoing comment period which included the public, federal and state agencies.

“The corps will address the issues raised in the final project document. A quick review of the letter revealed that there were no new issues raised,” Worley said.

Grumbles said the corps has not exhausted all other options for flood control.

“EPA recognizes the importance of improved flood protection for the people living and working in the Yazoo Basin but believes it can be accomplished with less environmental impacts while helping to advance the president’s wetlands goals,” he said.

The corps says plans to reforest up to 40,751 acres of current agricultural lands bought back over time by “willing sellers” makes the project a “net gain” from an environmental perspective.