Levee engineer says U.S. agency intentionally delaying flood control|[11/29/06]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A top state levee engineer has accused a federal agency of creating unnecessary delay of flood control work in the southern part of the Mississippi Delta.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has said in a recent report that it might now seek to refer the Yazoo Backwater Project to a White House council, said Chief Engineer Peter Nimrod of the Mississippi Levee Commission.

&#8220This will add an additional delay to this long-overdue project,” Nimrod said in a Nov. 17 memo to the Issaquena County Board of Supervisors.

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A project for the area was first 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.

The project as now proposed is sponsored by the levee commission, but its funding would be federal, through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps’ most-recent draft of a proposal for the project, from September 2000, estimates its construction cost at at least $183 million and its annual maintenance and operating costs at $1 million. Congress has appropriated no construction funding.

The Fish & Wildlife Service advocates a plan that would restore more of the area to its natural condition, before hardwood forests were cleared for farming.

Nimrod’s memo to supervisors says, &#8220The USF&WS states it might seek a White House Council on Environmental Quality Referral.”

The CEQ was established in 1969 to coordinate federal environmental efforts. It acts as a referee when agencies disagree over the adequacy of environmental-impact assessments.

A Corps environmental-impact statement on the backwater project is expected to be released on the project, probably next year. Once that report is released other federal agencies would have 25 days to request a CEQ referral, said a spokesman for the Corps’ Vicksburg District, Frank Worley.

The pump project was first proposed 65 years ago and Fish & Wildlife and the Corps have been at odds over the proposal for most of its history.

Recent debate has been over how much flooding any project that is built should allow in the area. Under the proposal, the Corps would use levees, associated drainage channels, pumping plants and floodgates to maintain an upper-limit Yazoo River stage of 87 feet. Fish & Wildlife, on the other hand, would support no upper limit below a comparable measure of 91 feet, said retired assistant field supervisor Curtis James, who now works as a contract biologist for the service.

The president of the Issaquena County Board of Supervisors, Willie Bunton of District 3, said the county government backs the Corps proposal because it would allow more farmland to remain productive.

&#8220We’re fighting to protect our land,” Bunton said, adding that farmland’s being allowed to revert to forest erodes the county’s tax base and can result in higher property taxes for all county residents.

A 2001 Fish & Wildlife publication says, &#8220The Corps’ recommended plan could result in the trade-off of nationally significant fish and wildlife resources in the name of further agricultural drainage within an area where agriculture has already proved to be a high-risk endeavor at best.”

The part of the Yazoo Backwater Area the Corps says would receive flood-protection from the project is about 1,550 square miles, including parts of Humphreys, Sharkey, Washington and Warren counties. It is bounded on the west by the Mississippi River levee, on the south by the Yazoo River and on the east by the hill line.

The entire backwater drainage area is comprised of 4,093 square miles.

The Corps’ proposal for the project includes funding for both a pumping plant and the acquisition of reforestation rights to up to 62,500 acres of frequently flooded farmland.

There are 18 federal, state, county, farming, economic, hunting and conservation groups represented on a committee the levee commission formed in 1998 to build consensus on the project. The Corps’ report, due next year, is to reflect the work of that committee.