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Conservation Groups Criticize EPA’s Revival of Wasteful, Destructive Boondoggle

More immediate, cost-effective flood control measures are needed

Jackson, MS – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that the agency is reconsidering its 2008 decision to halt a massive drainage project in the Mississippi Delta known as the Yazoo Backwater Pumps.

Under the George W. Bush administration, EPA vetoed the project, citing the “unacceptable damage” it would cause to “some of the richest wetland and aquatic resources in the nation.” It was only the 12th time the agency exercised its veto authority under the Clean Water Act.

“The Yazoo Pumps never had the support of the public. In fact, ninety percent of all the comments from Mississippi were in favor of the EPA’s action to stop it,” said Melissa Samet, Senior Water Resources Counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. “From wildlife organizations to conservative taxpayer groups, there was a resounding call for EPA to veto this disastrous, irresponsible project.”

The EPA and an independent hydrologic review found that the project would drain and damage up to 200,000 acres of ecologically significant wetlands—an area larger than all five boroughs of New York City. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) acknowledged that 67,000 acres of wetlands would be harmed, but also admitted that it did not evaluate the full range of wetland impacts. EPA vetoed the project based on the 67,000 acres of wetland impacts acknowledged by the Corps.

“Authorized in 1941, the Yazoo Pumps were designed as an ag drainage project never intended to be a flood control project,” said Louie Miller, State Director of Mississippi Sierra Club. “Rather, it’s a special interest giveaway - an agricultural drainage project designed to drain wetlands so that a handful of large landowners can expand production on lands that regularly flood. In fact, the Corps determined that 80 percent of the project’s benefits would be for agriculture.”

Many of these landowners already receive substantial federal farm subsidy payments. In just the twoyear floodplain of the project area, 51 landowners received a total of $15.3 million in farm subsidies between 1996 and 2001.

“Destroying wetlands that provide natural flood protection for the backwater area will only make these communities more vulnerable,” said Jill Mastrototaro, Policy Director for Audubon Mississippi. “Instead, federal programs and monies are available now to elevate homes and roads, and do voluntary relocations, which can provide more immediate, cost-effective protections for people’s lives and property.”

Residential flooding in the project area is very limited as a result of other major Corps projects, with only 62 properties filing National Flood Insurance claims over the 24-year period from 1979 to 2002.1 Downstream communities may well suffer from increased flooding as the project will pump more than six million gallons of water per minute—9 billion gallons a day—into the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers when they are at flood stage.

“There’s no evidence the Yazoo Pumps would have minimized the recent floods,” said Andrew Whitehurst, Water Program Director for Healthy Gulf. “The Pumps would force 9 billion gallons of water a day into the already swollen Yazoo River, and even the Corps acknowledges this would increase flood heights in the Yazoo. What I would like to know is whether a month or more of pumping would flood communities downstream, or breach nearby levees?”

The Yazoo Pumps would also lay waste to extensive federal investments by draining wetlands that federal taxpayers have long been paying to protect. This area represents one of the largest public land holdings in the state of Mississippi.

“Over 200,000 acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat will be damaged by this project, including thousands of acres of National Forest and National Wildlife Refuge lands, lands enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve and Conservation Reserve Programs, and lands purchased and restored as mitigation for previously constructed federal water projects,” said Jeanne Jones, President of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation. “Taxpayer dollars have long paid to protect and manage these lands for people and wildlife, and conservation of these lands is important for future generations. Critically, the risks to downstream communities have never been sufficiently investigated.”

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