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Pumps remain in new Corps plan for lower Delta

After nearly 10 years, the Army engineers are ready to release new recommendations of what to do with the Yazoo Backwater Project, saying modifications include features favorable to both farmers and environmentalists.

Crosby Simmons who farms land near Eagle Lake near Steele Bayou said he favors the project. “It will help everybody,” Simmons said.

Simmons farms in an area of the southern Mississippi Delta that is protected by a levee network, but sometimes floods when water ponds inside the levees designed and built to keep Mississippi River flooding out.

“Every inch helps me,” Simmons said, adding that even a slightly lower flood level means the difference in flooding or not flooding hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of farm land.

The Vicksburg-based U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office released its original plan in 1982, but the plan came under heavy criticism from environmental groups objecting to Corps plans to alter habitat. In 1991, the federal Office of Management and Budget ordered the District to re-evaluate all of its plans for work on the Yazoo River and its tributaries. One of the four parts of that overall plan involved the Yazoo Backwater Project.

Central to the plan has been a huge pumping plant where Steele Bayou empties into the Yazoo River about nine miles northwest of downtown Vicksburg. The pumps would lift impounded water over the levee and keep the farmland free of seepage and rainwater accumulating inside the levee.

The other three parts of the plan involve work proposed along the Yazoo River, Steele Bayou and other tributaries, all in the north Delta.

The latest report, the Corps says, meets the requirements placed on the project: greater flood protection for urban areas, reduced conversion of forest land to farm land and reduced impacts on the environment.

“Our task has been to provide protection to businesses, infrastructure and residents of the south Mississippi Delta, while notably improving the future of the region’s environment,” said Michael Logue, public affairs officer for the District.

Some of the plan involves construction. Other aspects don’t.

“The structural feature is a 14,000 (cubic foot per second) pumping plant at Steele Bayou,” said Kenneth D. “Kent” Parrish Jr., senior project manager.

He said the proposed plant is larger than the plant suggested by OMB but smaller than the plant detailed in the 1982 report.

Under the latest plan, the District proposes to begin operating the pumps when water behind the control structure reaches 87 feet mean sea level to help protect land above that level from flooding.

“For agricultural land below 87 feet, we propose to come in and buy conservation easements on 62,400 acres (nearly 100 square miles) from willing sellers,” Parrish said. “As part of the project cost, we will reforest the land.”

The leases will require the landowner to leave the land forested and to employ good forest management. Other than that, the landowner can do as he pleases, such as manage it for timber or lease the hunting rights, Parrish said.

He also said the pump-operating plan would reduce 10-year-frequency floods by about 5 feet and 100-year-frequency floods by about 4 feet.

Terry Smith, project manager, said the District also proposes holding water in Steele Bayou in dry weather in a band between 70 feet msl and 73 feet msl, or about three feet higher than now.

“That should help the fishing above” the control structure, he said.

“We tried to get flood protection for the higher land while enhancing the lower land and giving the owners the opportunity to change the land use to something more compatible to frequent flooding,” Smith said.

Other benefits include restoration of habitat for the black bear which has threatened status and the pondberry, which is considered endangered, and to increase critical habitat for waterfowl, including one of the seven priority conservation areas named in the North American Waterfowl Plan.

As proposed in the latest report, the entire project cost is $181.6 million, of which a third is committed to improvement and restoration of the environment, and will be borne by the federal government, Parrish said.

“The Mississippi Levee District, based in Greenville, will be responsible for the maintenance of the inlet and outlet channels,” he said.

The District built those channels in 1987 at a cost of about $2.5 million.

The District computed the cost-benefit ratio at 1.48, meaning the project will return $1.48 in benefits, not including increased jobs, economic stability, improvements in health and welfare and others, for every $1 spent to build and maintain the project.

“We looked at other solutions that had greater cost-benefit ratios for one aspect or another,” Smith said, but pointed out they believe the proposed project is best for providing benefits to all concerned.

Parrish and Smith called the plan a compromise plan, pointing out District officials met with representatives of many groups in coming up with the final suggested course of action.

The District will open a Web site Tuesday on which people can find the 120-page draft report posted along with all of the plates and supplemental sections, numbering nearly 2,000 pages.

“They will be able to download it and print out whatever they want,” Logue said, pointing out this is the first time the District has published a report by putting it on the Internet. “Normally we would print a few hard copies and hand them out to the project sponsor and others.”

Logue also said people may send e-mail questions and comments about the report and receive an answer and they may also order a printed copy or CD of the report from the Web site or by e-mail.

Copies of the report will also be available at public libraries in Vicksburg, Natchez, Greenville, Clarksdale and Rolling Fork.

After the draft report is published, the public and interested agencies and organizations will have at least 60 days to review and reply. The District will consider all comments before making the report final and submitting it as a recommendation to Congress.