Backwater pumping plan takes another hit

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 10, 2000

Ester Boykins of the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund Inc., speaks out against the proposed Yazoo backwater pump at a public hearing Thursday night in Rolling Fork. (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

ROLLING FORK Modifications to the decades-old plan to build a backwater pumping station at Steele Bayou came under fire Thursday when unveiled at a public hearing here.

Opponents of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project wore stickers with the phrase “Dump the Pumps” printed on them. One of those who spoke out against the project was Ester Boykins of the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund Inc.

“Large-scale environmental impacts will occur in the Delta if the Corps goes forward with this project,” Boykins said. Earth Justice and other groups have often litigated against Corps works, most recently losing in a bid to halt a project that is raising the height of mainline levees.

The pumps at the center of debate for the 250 people who attended the hearing were part of a 1941 proposal to remove water if it becomes impounded in the Mississippi Delta during flood years.

The project consisted of a Yazoo River levee system that hooked into the Mainline Mississippi River Levee and into a hill line on the east side of the Delta.

A control structure on Steele Bayou, at the base of the enclosure created by the levees, normally allows rainwater to be drained into the Yazoo. But gates are closed and the control structure acts as a dam during floods to prevent water from the Yazoo and the Mississippi River from backing into the Delta.

While that helps, seepage and rainwater can build up rapidly on the vast areas of flat farmland. The pumps, operating at 14,000 cubic feet per second, would lift that water over the levee and out into the Yazoo River.

“The project just does not economically add up,” Boykins said.

The cost of the pumping station, redesigned several times and now scaled down, is estimated at $181.6 million with an annual cost of $14.9 million. According to a recent study by the Corps, the project would save $22 million annually by allowing farming to be uninterrupted in the Delta.

According to Doug McKenzie with the non-profit organization Wildlife Management Institute, 80 percent of the benefits from the pump would be seen in farm land.

“There is a better way and that is going to begin with acknowledging that there is a need for a place to store flood water,” McKenzie said.

Wildlife Management supports a plan in which most of the areas now prone to flooding would be returned to forest and flood waters would be allowed to stay in the region until it drained out naturally.

Although many of the speakers spoke out against the pump, some were eager to see construction begin. Jean Harmon, a farmer in Sharkey County, said he hoped the project would be completed in his lifetime.

“It’s a lot of money,” Harmon said. “But they’re going to spend more money just to get this Nissan plant started.”

Three days after a special session of the Mississippi Legislature approved spending $295 million to bring Nissan to the state, the manufacturer announced Thursday it would build a $930 million van, truck and SUV factory to Canton. The state assistance will be in the form of state work and assorted tax breaks and other incentives.

Although the Corps’ latest pump plan would be beneficial to farmers in several counties, the plan has also been specifically endorsed by the Sharkey County Board of Supervisors and the City of Rolling Fork. The Mississippi Levee Board is the local sponsor of the pump project, even though construction of the pump would be funded entirely by federal taxpayers.

“It’s a sound plan that offers economic and environmental benefits,” said James Wanamaker, chief engineer for the Greenville-based levee board.

The seven-member commission is charged with maintaining and operating the Mainline Mississippi River Levee in Bolivar, Washington, Issaquena, Sharkey and Humphreys counties.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contend the pumps will cause environmental damage to the region.