Sen. Wicker ‘pessimistic’ on pumps veto|[04/19/08]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 19, 2008

A steady rain on the tin farm shed where U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker met with Yazoo backwater area farmers Friday was a reminder of the threat facing all who came to address the senator.

“So far, I’ve lost about 100 acres of crops that I’ve already planted. I’m waiting to plant another 100 acres because the fields are flooded, and the rest is right at the water’s edge just waiting to go under,” said Holly Bluff farmer Clay Adcock. “Every drop of rain that falls here will put more crops under water.”

An estimated 304,000 acres of land are already flooded in the backwater area, and another 100,000 are expected to go under before the gates of the Steele Bayou Control Structure can be opened and trapped floodwaters can be drained from the levee-locked area.

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Wicker, the Republican appointed to the post after Sen. Trent Lott resigned in December, met with about 20 farmers on Low Water Bridge Road near Valley Park to hear their concerns. Originally scheduled to take a helicopter tour of the flooded areas in Vicksburg and the backwater area, the tour was canceled due to rainy conditions. Instead, he met with farmers not far from the Steele Bayou Control Structure.

Most wanted to know what the senator will do to fight the Environmental Protection Agency in its current bid to veto a proposed $220 million pump designed to alleviate flooding in the backwater area. The proposed pumps have been part of the Corps backwater plan since 1941, but have never been approved or fully funded. Opponents question the Corps’ projected cost-benefit ratio and the environmental impacts of the project. The EPA is set to give a final decision on whether the pumps will be vetoed in May.

“There’s never been an EPA veto overturned. The situation is pessimistic. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that to you,” Wicker told the farmers. “But we’re going to do whatever we can in Washington to fight it.”

After hearing the senator’s remarks, most farmers, including Adcock, said they didn’t have much hope the backwater pump will survive if the EPA is successful in vetoing the project.

“I’m a cynic,” said Adcock, who, in addition to his 4,000 acres of farmland, has a lake house in Yazoo County that is already a foot under water. “I’m not as confident as I used to be that our representatives can get this done.”

Roughly 4,000 square miles of timber and farmland in the Mississippi Delta make up the backwater area. The low-lying land is surrounded by levees with water levels inside the backwater area controlled by the Steele Bayou Structure north of Vicksburg near Mississippi 465. The structure is the lone drainage point for the entire backwater area.

The gates of Steele Bayou have been closed since March 13. With the gates closed, levees built to protect the backwater area from Mississippi River flooding serve instead like the walls of a giant bathtub, holding in any rain. The gates cannot be opened until the riverside water stage of the structure is lower than that on the landside, which the Corps estimates won’t happen for at least another month.

“We would have been better off if they’d never built the levees at all if they’re not going to build a pump,” said Gene Fulton, a member of the Issaquena County Board of Supervisors.

Friday, the landside of the structure was at 90.9 feet, and the riverside was at 99.9 feet — meaning nine feet of floodwater is being held out of the backwater area. Up to 1.5 inches of rain is forecast to fall over the backwater area through today, which will most certainly raise the landside water stage.

With normal rainfall through May 13, the Vicksburg District of the Army Corps of Engineers expects floodwaters inside the backwater area to top out at 94 feet — at which an estimated 404,000 acres will be inundated. Only twice in the past 30 years has the backwater area experienced such flooding. Some homes in the backwater area will also be flooded at 94 feet.

The backwater area is sparsely populated, and those who live there are mostly farmers of soybeans, corn, wheat and cotton.

“About 20,000 people live in the area, and of them roughly 32 percent live below the poverty line,” said Nimrod. “Farming is about all the people there can do. Other kinds of industries or employers won’t relocate in the backwater precisely because it is so flood prone.”

Wicker will have to be elected by Mississippi voters in the November general election to retain his appointment by Gov. Haley Barbour to the position. After the meeting with farmers, Wicker said he was off to Tupelo to cast an absentee vote in the U.S. House of Representatives interim election that will fill the seat left vacant by his appointment to the senate.

Mississippi RiverCREST FORECAST51 feet todayFRIDAY’S STAGE: 50.8 feetFLOOD STAGE: 43 feetFlood PhotosSlideshow of All Photos