Corps could begin installing backwater pumps next year|[11/14/07]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Installation of a pump station capable of draining the southern reaches of the Mississippi Delta during floods could begin by the end of 2008, thus capping off a project in the works for more than 60 years. Legions of agencies and interest groups remain aligned against the idea, however, making court fights and a struggle for $220 million in funding far more likely.

Tuesday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District released what it called the final Yazoo Backwater Area Reformulation for which all preliminary phases, including control structures, levees and channels, have been completed in the years since Congress first authorized it in 1941.

The pump station would be built at the Steele Bayou Drainage Structure on Mississippi 465 north of Vicksburg. It would move 14,000 cubic feet of water per second from the land or Delta side of the structure to the river side if and when gates were closed due to high river stages. Designs have it protecting about 630,000 acres in the South Delta from flooding. Flooding to residential and nonresidential structures in the Delta would be reduced by 68 percent when the pump station is completed, said the report, for which a public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, at the Issaquena County Courthouse in Mayersville.

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Perpetual rights-of-way would be sought from willing landowners to build the pump station, the report said, adding costs would translate into $1.40 in benefits for every $1 spent. Reforestation of up to 55,600 acres would restore habitat to native plants and animals like the endangered Louisiana black bear, an aspect touted by Corps officials as they spoke to reporters Tuesday during a telephone press conference.

“It’s a balanced project and it’s good for the South Delta,” said Peter Nimrod, chief engineer for the Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners, which will handle maintenance on the station when complete as it does on levees and other designs completed since the lower river basin suffered its worst-ever flooding in 1927. That event led to the Corps being assigned greater authority in maintaining the river for commerce while limiting flooding. The Mississippi River and Tributaries Project began in 1928 and the Corps has been working on it since.

Public comment period ends Jan. 22, with approval of the feedback by higher-level Army Corps officials expected sometime next year. The earliest construction could begin is next fall, said Corps project manager Kent Parrish.

The board oversees the levee district which spans Bolivar, Washington, Issaquena and Sharkey counties, plus parts of Humphreys and Warren counties.

A summary of the report conceded 216,000 acres would be allowed to flood before pumps are turned on, a figure based on 1- and 2-year base flood elevations. Parrish said pumping capacity will still lower the 100-year flood event more than 4 feet despite efforts still in progress by the state to update flood elevation maps.

“It’s pretty well standard,” Parrish said. “We don’t think any changes will occur with that.”

New digital flood maps for all 82 Mississippi counties are to be released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency by 2010. Half the state — including nearly all Delta counties — remain in the initial phase of a seven-step effort, called the Mississippi Flood Map Modernization Initiative. Warren County is one of six counties in the “review” phase, or the fifth step. So far, maps have become effective for only Rankin, DeSoto, Kemper and Choctaw counties.

Other projects to control floods on the Mississippi River have progressed as slowly, such as work to raise the Mainline Mississippi River Levee up to 8 feet in its most deficient locations. In June, a Senate subcommittee approved $60 million for levee improvements in Mississippi, a figure still being ironed out in Congress but would include funding for the mainline system work.

A version of the full report on the Yazoo Backwater Area Reformulation can be viewed at