Corps nearing finish line on pump decision|[12/09/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 9, 2007

ISSAQUENA COUNTY — Peering into a sunny vista past a stately row of pine and oak trees, Loomis Giles spots the faint edges of a 172-acre tract off Mississippi 465 her family has owned since 1928 — and she hadn’t visited in three years.

Giles recalls that her father bought the land to finance her college education, and like many in the South Delta, she recalls with picturesque clarity its use in the years that followed.

“Every sharecropper had a little house on stilts out here,” Giles said.

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Today the landscape reflects timber farming and hunting camps — not row crops — a testament to the flood-prone topography and a reality that links it to every flood control measure initiated since the 1927 Mississippi River flood.

Giles remembers how lesser deluges replenished the Delta’s life-giving nutrients naturally before the Mainline Mississippi River Levee System was built in the decades following 1927, the year she was born.

Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is trying again to win again final approval and funding for the final element in a water management system drawn up by engineers in 1941.

The Corps says its environmentally neutral, if not helpful. Their voluminous revised Yazoo Backwater Project description also calls it financially advantageous.

Others, including some federal agencies, environmental groups perhaps even the White House, think it’s folly and should, once and for all, be scrapped.

Though Giles said her comfort level with the new recommendations has risen, she still leaves trust up to faith.

“They should still let the river flow naturally,” Giles said. “I think God knows what he’s doing more than we do.”

Of course, that’s not going to happen. After the worst flooding ever on the lower Mississippi occurred 80 years ago, Congress told the Corps its mission would include unifying plans of myriad local levee authorities and devising a master plan to maximize navigation and minimize flooding along the waterway. Since then, untold billions have been spent building and maintaining levees and locks, control structures, floodways and more. The Mississippi and its many of its tributaries, including the Yazoo which flows near Giles’ land, will not be “natural rivers” anytime soon.

Since 1941, the basic idea has been to protect the Mississippi Delta from overland flooding with levees near the river bank and along the Yazoo, which tracks the Delta’s southern and eastern borders. But keeping the river water off the millions of acres of flat farmland meant rain water would build up behind drainage gates inside the levees, closed to keep the river water out. This usually occurs in spring, a time for planting, river floods and heavy storms. The final element in the overall plan has been to create a pumping station to move the impounded water up and over the levees and into the river flow.

Structures were built in the ensuing decades to control flooding in the Mississippi and backups created in the Yazoo River during high tides. Those included gates at the Little Sunflower River and at Steele Bayou, completed in 1969, and the Yazoo Backwater Levee in 1978. One part of the project, one calling for the Big Sunflower River to be dredged to carry 5 feet more sediment, was tied up in litigation during the late 1990s by groups challenging its initial environmental review. A revised study is expected in 2008.

To control backups created in a 4,093-square-mile drainage basin between the two levee systems when gates are closed, the Corps has favored building a pump station. Water trapped in the 10-county area from Clarksdale south to Rolling Fork and Eagle Lake can’t flow naturally to the Mississippi River at high flood stages unless pumped out, according to Corps’ analysis.

Planning a pump station just west of the Steele Bayou Control Structure has proven a typically long, drawn-out federal affair, complete with revisions to its scope and funding.

Studies in 1982 had the station capable of pumping 17,500 cubic feet of water from the basin per second and operational when flood levels reached 80 feet above sea level. Efforts to maintain wetlands and wildlife habitat were minimal, as the Corps allowed for buyouts of only 6,500 acres.

In between came the floods of 1973, which left 1 million acres in the Lower Mississippi River system submerged for two months. Work to raise the levees up to 8 feet in areas concluded to be deficient in post-flood studies continues today and is set to wrap up in 2031.

As flood protection began to clash with wetlands preservation in the 1970s, methods to help flood victims deal with its effects were established, chiefly the National Flood Insurance Program. At the same time, the pump project’s scope was decreased, then increased slightly. As inlet channels and the cofferdam were completed at the pump site, delays multiplied.

For 10 years, its funding formula was in doubt, as the 1986 Water Resources Development Act was written to put 25 percent of the cost on local entities.

Once full federal funding was restored, the Corps began a slow march toward incorporating into the plan elements of opponents’ key arguments about habitat and wetlands preservation.

A draft environmental study in 2000 was followed by sessions in the field with the Environmental Protection Agency to identify wetlands and measure the project’s impact — even as the federal agency asked the Corps to consider alternatives and funded independent studies by Virginia Tech University and the U.S. Geological Survey to find ways to allow the basin to drain naturally.

Its potential impact on the land made it eligible for a veto under wetlands protection provisions of the Clean Water Act, a 2000 EPA report to the Vicksburg District said.

“It was about what the wetland losses will be and what would it take to offset it,” senior project manager Kent Parrish said.

Part of the conservation efforts entail buying permanent easements from willing sellers of land. About 55,000 acres of crop land will be reforested and must be used for wildlife and forestry purposes. Parrish expressed confidence the Corps could buy the 10,622 acres needed to avoid calculable losses in wetland habitat.

Groups gearing up to lobby the EPA to kill the project have latched onto wetlands conservation as its primary argument against the pumps.

In a release Thursday, the Washington, D.C.-based National Wildlife Federation said the project — dubbed a “boondoggle” by the organization — would damage up to 25 times more wetlands than all other vetoed projects combined.

Others keeping up the fight against the pumps are American Rivers, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, both D.C.-based, and New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network. In a scheduled teleconference with news outlets Tuesday, the groups will formally state their opposition.

Current plans have the per-second pumping capacity at 14,000 cubic feet. Pumps would not be turned on during a flood until water reaches 87 feet above sea level.

Overall, the cost of the pumps has grown from $181 million when the draft environmental study came out in 2000 to $220 million today, despite the smaller capacity. Corps officials have pointed to reforestation efforts as the reason, as that now makes up more than 30 percent of the project’s costs.

They also see project changes as a breakthrough in the Corps’ struggle for support.

“We have a tremendous project here,” said Peter Nimrod, chief engineer for the Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners, equally as enthusiastic as the Corps about casting as compromises changes to the project since the 1990s.

However, rhetoric on both sides of the issue has remained, as seasoned local observers have put it, as hyperbolic as any issue to hit the Delta before or since.

Local supporters have branded any opposition to the project as “environmental extremists” and say any further delays in building the pumps will jeopardize the lives of future generations.

Environmental groups say the current levee system already protects the South Delta from likely flooding. They also say population density in the South Delta doesn’t warrant a project of such size.

At a Nov. 29 public hearing in Mayersville, groups cited a 2003 analysis by the weekly Deer Creek Pilot of flood claims in the South Delta relative to other areas as proof the project doesn’t balance helping people with aiding wetlands.

It found federal flood claims filed from 1978 to 2002 totaled just 32 per year in Sharkey and Issaquena counties, a sharp contrast from earlier Corps studies based on thousands flooding in the area. Of 796 filings, 384 were paid, according to NFIP statistics.

“If the Yazoo pumps were built the year Julius Caesar was killed, we’d still need 1,122 more years to equalize the costs,” said Louis Miller of the Mississippi Sierra Club.

In a Nov. 6 editorial, the New York Times called on the EPA or the White House Council on Environmental Quality to kill the project. It characterized it and the Corps’ final report as “an indestructible ghoul in a low-grade horror flick” that was “rising again from the bureaucratic crypt.”

Public comments on the final environmental impact statement will be taken by mail and online until Jan. 22. A draft record of the public feedback will be sent to the president of the Mississippi River Commission, Brig. Gen. Robert Crear.