Plea for pumps at Steele Bayou renewed onsite

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 5, 2003

Mississippi Delta residents listen as Jim Wanamaker, chief engineer of the Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners, explains how a long-planned pumping plant could reduce flood damage from high water in the Delta at the Steel Bayou Drainage Structure in Issaquena County. (C. Todd Sherman The Vicksburg Post)

[6/5/03] STEELE BAYOU With floodwaters at near-perfect levels to make their point, advocates of a pumping plant convened a summit, of sorts, at the Steele Bayou Control Structure on Wednesday.

Jim Wanamaker, chief engineer of the Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners, said the pumps, proposed in various forms for more than 50 years, won’t drain the Mississippi Delta of impounded water, but would help people who live in north Warren County and in Sharkey and Issaquena counties.

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As it stands, the Army Corps of Engineers’ $191 million project to build a 14,000-cubic-foot-per-second facility continues to be a lightning rod for controversy. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who represents the area in Congress, and U.S. Sen, Trent Lott, R-Miss., are advocates, but environmental groups and the New York Times call it a boondoggle.

Attending were about 100 officials of the levee board, elected officials from Vicksburg to Greenville and a number of people who live in the area who would be protected by the final element in the overall Yazoo Backwater Project that was developed in the aftermath of the Flood of 1927. Several people had signs showing their feelings about the backwater and seeking approval for funding of the pumps.

If built they would move water from “inside” the levee that protects the lower Delta to the “outside.” Normally, the gates at Steele Bayou, visible from Mississippi 465, are open to drain the streams that wend through the vast farmland. Those gates are closed, as now, when the Mississippi and Yazoo rise near flood stage. Although the Delta is getting some protection from water when the gates are closed, rain and seepage water builds up, and it is that the pumps would remove.

“I see it as very necessary because when the backwater really comes, the farmers affected by it … and the people living in low places,” said Robert Morganfield a retiree living in Rolling Fork. “It is just necessary to have a way to dispose of the water.”

Morganfield also does not think much of groups and individuals who oppose the pumping plant.

“I think they have less interest and concern about the ones that are affected (by the backwater). Probably the ones that oppose it, it doesn’t bother them,” he said.

The Mississippi crested at Vicksburg at 43 feet, exactly flood stage, a week ago. Flood gates at the Steele Bayou Control Structure have been closed to keep that water off crops, but seepage and rainwater have been building up inside the gates.

Anderson Jones, a resident of Fitler, had his home flooded during the 1973 flood and believes the pumps would have reduced the amount of water in his home. His house had some 40 inches of water in it in 1973.

“It would help everyone that the water come over and take their homes and destroy their animals,” Jones said.

At one time, the pumps were to cost $1 billion and keep the Delta dry. Under the preferred alternative in the most recent reformulation of the project performed by the Vicksburg District the pumps would be operated when the water behind the structure reached 85 feet mean sea level and turned off when it returned to that level. The minimum water level behind the structure would be maintained between 70 and 73 feet msl.

Another environmental feature of the revised project would be the reforestation of 40,600 acres of cleared cropland prone to flooding. The land would still be owned by private interests, but the federal government would plant trees. Landowners would become timber managers.

In tracing the history of the project, Wanamaker said the Yazoo Backwater Plan was conceived when the federal 1941 Flood Control Act made changes in the 1928 and 1936 acts to remove floodways in Arkansas, which would have increased the flood level at the mouth of the Yazoo River by 6 feet and ultimately increase flooding on 247,000 acres in the Delta. He also said the 1973 flood showed that the cutoffs made under the 1928 FCA were less efficient than thought and the water level was from 4 to 6 feet higher at the mouth of the Yazoo than expected. All this made the pumping plant more necessary.

Using the 1973 flood as a yardstick, Wanamaker said the pumping plant would have reduced flooding from 626,000 acres in the south Delta to 466,000 acres and the duration of flooding above 91 feet msl from 93 days to 84 days. The flood elevation during that flood was 101.1 feet msl. Later floods in 1975, 1983 and 1997 would have produced no flooding above 91 feet if the pumping plant had existed.

“The importance (of the pumping plant) is to keep the water off of us,” said Willie Mae Moore of Tallula Deadening near Fitler on Mississippi 1. “Anyway they can keep the water off of us, that’s important.”

Moore also does not think much of the people and organizations who oppose the project. “They don’t live here,” she finally said. “So, they don’t have the trouble like us.”

Wanamaker said some of the opponents have claimed the money the project would cost could be divided among the people affected by it, and they could move.

Moore did not think much of that idea either, asking what she could do with her $24,000 share. The home she lives in now would cost more than $80,000 to replace, and her share would make only a down payment on a new place to live. That, she said, would only leave her with another bill to pay when she already had to put off playing a bill this month to buy groceries.

“Next month that bill will be past due,” Moore said.

“No one should have to give up their homes in this United States. We have the richest country in the world,” said Ruby Johnson, a strong supporter of the project from Cary.

She said most of the people she’s talking about received the land they own from their ancestors and they should not have to give up those parcels.

“We need to start spending our money on priorities. Priorities to me are human beings,” Johnson said.

She also said floods affect the economy of the area by damaging crops and domestic animals that form the basis of the economy.

“When you don’t have no crops, it hurts the total environment. You lose your tax base. We forgot that we the people live off each other,” Johnson said.