FACES OF THE FLOODS: EPA gives update on Yazoo Backwater Pumps; State legislators say government is stalling project

Published 10:49 am Friday, December 23, 2022

Faces of the Floods is a series by The Vicksburg Post that tells the stories of people impacted by catastrophic floods in the Yazoo Backwater area.

The Yazoo Backwater Pumps Project was vetoed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Biden Administration one year ago — and Mississippi’s U.S. Senators say they’re displeased with the lack of progress in finding a solution to chronic flooding in the South Delta.

The Nov. 17, 2021 veto was spurred by an Aug. 30, 2021 letter sent to the EPA by Rep. Bennie Thompson, who represents the South Mississippi Delta as part of Mississippi Congressional District 2. Thompson cited “serious issues” with the Trump-era EPA’s handling of the project, adding that the decision to vacate the 2008 veto of the Yazoo Pumps Project “may have been issued in violation of Congressionally-mandated requirements and that critical concerns raised by career staff scientists were ignored.”

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Thompson later explained while addressing the Rotary Club of Vicksburg in March 2022 that, based on his findings, the now-vetoed project was in violation of the law — a reference to Section 404(C) of the Clean Water Act, which the EPA cited in its most recent decision to veto the project.

On Aug. 24, a meeting was held at South Delta High School, during which a delegation from the Biden Administration, accompanied by Thompson and Sen. Roger Wicker, listened to nearly two hours’ worth of testimonials from residents impacted by flooding in the South Delta.

That same day, a revised proposed plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Yazoo Backwater Pumps project was discussed by an engineer for the Mississippi Levee Board at the Mississippi River Commission’s low water tour stop in Vicksburg.

Four months after this meeting, The Post contacted members of the delegation as well as Thompson, Wicker, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (who attended the low water meeting) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District to obtain comment on the progress of the project and the new proposal.

Brenda Mallory, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ); Radhika Fox, assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency; Shannon Estenoz, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks; Victoria Salinas, Associate Administrator for Resilience for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and EPA Administrator Michael Regan were contacted.

Hyde-Smith, Thompson, Wicker and the EPA responded to the request and provided statements.

EPA: CEQ leading multi-agency response

“CEQ is leading an initiative with federal agencies, including the EPA, the U.S. Army, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pull together relevant information and analysis required to address persistent and damaging flood risk to communities in the Yazoo Backwater Area,” the EPA said on Dec. 16 via a spokesperson. “CEQ has been convening the agencies to discuss potential paths forward, including on how best to ensure that any solution is informed by the needs and priorities of local communities. CEQ will have more to share, including on public engagement opportunities, as this process moves forward.”

Vicksburg District: No new developments since September

In September of this year, the Vicksburg District announced it had worked with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) and completed a scale model of the Yazoo Backwater Pumps Project based on the specifications of the proposal presented on Aug. 24.

A spokesperson for the Vicksburg District stated there were no further developments since the announcement of the scale model.

Thompson: Flooding a ‘priority’

In a statement to The Post on Dec. 15, Thompson, who has since advocated for finding alternatives to the Yazoo Backwater Pumps in addition to residents seeking aid through federal programs, said flooding is still a priority.

“Flooding continues to be a priority. I encourage the South Delta to take full advantage of all federal resources available from USDA, the Department of Interior, FEMA and HUD,” Thompson said. “The pumps continue to be a possibility and I encourage that it meets all federal requirements.”

Wicker: Biden Administration ‘stalling’ progress

Wicker expressed frustration with the lack of progress on the current Yazoo Pumps proposal, but encouraged advocates of the project to keep working for its completion.

“President Biden’s handpicked team traveled to the South Delta in August to see the need for the Yazoo Pumps firsthand,” Wicker said on Dec. 16. “After an overwhelming outpouring of public support for the project, officials agreed it was time to stop talking and take action.

“After months of discussion, they continue to delay,” he added. “The Administration should know that we won’t be silent, and we won’t stop fighting to finish the pumps that were promised to us nearly 100 years ago.”

Hyde-Smith: Biden EPA is a ‘whole lot of talk,’ no action

Hyde-Smith released a statement to The Post on Dec. 16 as well, and said she is frustrated with the number of broken promises made to the people of the South Delta by the federal government.

“Where we stand as of now — 13 months after Biden’s EPA pulled the rug out from under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, not for the first, but the second time—is a whole lot of talk, but not much action,” she said. “EPA has made promises and commitments. The White House Council on Environmental Quality has organized interagency working groups.

“But we still have EPA’s inflated interpretation of its power under the Clean Water Act to prevent the Corps from carrying out its congressionally-authorized duties,” she added. “Today, people in one of the most rural, underserved areas of the United States remain without much-needed flood protection and without the administration’s true interest to finish the pumps.”

Issaquena County, one of the areas hardest hit by backwater flooding, has a per-capita income of $18,598 — making it the poorest county in the United States.

“I hope it doesn’t take another flood like the historic flood of 2019 to remind this administration that a pumping station to remove trapped floodwaters is a good thing—not a bad thing—for people and the environment,” Hyde-Smith said. “I don’t understand why that is so hard to comprehend, but remain committed to making the Yazoo Backwater Pumps a reality.”

If you or someone you know is a South Delta resident impacted by the Yazoo Backwater Floods, email The Vicksburg Post’s Managing Editor at anna.guizerix@vicksburgpost.com to share your story.