Hyde-Smith responds to USACE Yazoo Backwater plan: ‘Best proposal yet’

Published 9:43 am Friday, June 28, 2024

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) this week is getting behind the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Vicksburg District, which opened the public comment section Friday on a new draft environmental impact statement (EIS) concerning the long embattled Yazoo Backwater Study Area.

Hyde-Smith welcomed the release of the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) to address the recurring backwater flooding in the south Mississippi Delta.

The Yazoo Backwater Area Water Management Project, prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies, consists of both structural and non-structural measures to provide flood risk reduction for area residents, commercial properties, churches, schools, roads and other infrastructure, while preventing environmental losses.

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“The draft EIS published in the Federal Register represents an important step in the exhaustive environmental review process. The recommended plan represents a balanced approach to flood protection as well as environmental protection, so everyone should be on board with this,” said Hyde-Smith, who has championed the completion of the project following devastating flooding in 2019.

“I continue to recommend that those affected by Yazoo Backwater flooding study the draft EIS and offer public comment on the plan before the mid-August deadline. Let’s keep making progress until we can finally get a Record of Decision later this year to move us toward the flood protection this area deserves.”

The Army Corps Vicksburg District issued the draft EIS for the Yazoo Backwater Study Area (YSA), as stipulated in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to prepare an EIS for proposals deemed to be major federal actions. Public comments on the draft EIS will close on August 12.

Public comments will be incorporated into a final EIS that is expected to be published later this year, followed by the issuance of a Record of Decision (ROD) that explains the agency’s decision to proceed with the project and discusses various alternatives considered by the agency during the process.

In July 2023, the Corps took its first significant action on a new, agreed-upon plan, developed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, when it published a Notice of Intent for the Yazoo Backwater Area Water Management Project, informing the public on its plans and upcoming environmental analysis.

The Notice of Intent restarted the process to “Finish the Pumps” after the EPA used a rare and highly controversial provision of the Clean Water Act to halt a previous Yazoo Backwater Area ROD issued by the Army Corps in January 2021.

“I could not disagree more with the stance taken by EPA back in November 2021, in terms of EPA’s view of the previously proposed project, as well as its exaggerated interpretation of its authority under the Clean Water Act,” Hyde-Smith said. “However, the new plan currently under consideration is the best proposal yet in this project’s lengthy history, so I applaud the Corps, EPA, and the other supporting agencies for going back to the drawing board to get to where we are now.”

Hyde-Smith said she questioned the head of the Army Corps about the outlook for the Yazoo Backwater Area Project at a recent hearing.

“I want and expect the Corps to complete the remaining NEPA work and issue a new ROD before the end of this year,” she said.

In addition to the preferred plan and as required under NEPA, the Corps also evaluated several project alternatives, ranging from the “No Action Alternative” (or do-nothing approach) to a fully non-structural solution alternative involving such things as property buyouts, constructing ring levees around individual homes, schools, and churches in the area, or elevating septic tanks or roads.

“I am so pleased the draft EIS examines and describes the benefits, or lack thereof, and costs associated with concepts lacking a pumping station,” Hyde-Smith said. “Environmental organizations opposed to adequate flood protection in the South Delta have for years suggested there are ways to address our perpetual flooding without pumps. Well, the science indicates that is impossible. The do-nothing approach is completely unreasonable and certainly not affordable. It’s self-explanatory. There’s no budget or logic behind the idea of buying residents out, giving them a government check and telling them to move, or building a small levee around peoples’ homes only to leave them surrounded by 20 miles of water in any direction.”

The Yazoo Backwater Area Project is part of the comprehensive Mississippi River and Tributaries (MR&T) Project, which protects the 36,000-square-mile Lower Mississippi River Valley from flooding through an intricate system of levees, floodways, channel stabilization and tributary/backwater area improvements.

There are four backwater areas within the MR&T project area: the St. Francis River; White River; Red River; and Yazoo Backwater Area, each of which have operational pump stations, except for the Yazoo Backwater Area. The Yazoo Backwater Area has experienced flooding due to the lack of a pumping station in 19 out of the last 23 years.