Environment News Service (ENS)
Environment News Service (ENS)

EPA nixes pumping Mississsippi wetlands dry for agriculture


Source: Environment News Service (ENS)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is threatening to veto a $220 million Army Corps of Engineers flood-control project in the Mississippi Delta known as Yazoo Pump that environmentalists have long opposed for its adverse impact on wildlife and wetlands. The world's largest hydraulic pumping plant would be used to drain wetlands to open the land up to agriculture.

In 2000, the EPA concluded that the Yazoo Pump will drain and damage over 200,000 acres of ecologically significant wetlands, and will alter the hydrology of the entire 925,000 acre project area.

On Friday, the EPA notified the Corps that it intends to issue a 'public notice of a proposed determination to restrict or prohibit the discharge of dredged or fill material at the Yazoo Backwater Area project site' in the Yazoo River Basin of the Mississippi River.

'We have reason to believe that the recommended project plan could result in unacceptable adverse effects on the aquatic ecosystem, particularly to fish and wildlife resources,' EPA Deputy Regional Administrator Lawrence Starfield wrote in a letter Friday to Colonel Michael Wehr, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' operations in Vicksburg.

'As you know we have longstanding concerns about this project because it would impact aquatic ecosystems on a massive scale, affecting approximately 67,000 acres of wetlands.'

Starfield gave the Corps 15 days to provide more information 'to demonstrate that no unacceptable adverse impacts would occur from this project or that corrective action will be taken...'

The EPA has the authority to veto the project if the agency determines it would violate the federal Clean Water Act.

The National Audubon Society, American Rivers and other conservation groups have maintained for years that the Corps proposal would cause harm to tens of thousands of acres of wetlands and aquatic habitat important to migratory birds, Mississippi River fishes, threatened black bears and other wildlife.

Authorized by Congress 67 years ago, the so-called Yazoo Pump is a relic of an era when wetlands were considered wastelands, and the intent was to increase the production of crops on marginal farmland, conservationists say.

'We are pleased the EPA has recognized the importance of this ecosystem to the ecological health of the Mississippi River,' said Bruce Reid, Audubon's Lower Mississippi River Program Director.

Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, said, “One of the most environmentally disastrous ideas of the last half century is now one step closer to being thrown into the trash where it belongs. The Environmental Protection Agency has lived up to its name by showing the courage to stand up against this wasteful project.'

'The Yazoo Backwater Area,' wrote Starfield in his letter, 'includes some of the richest wetland and aquatic resources in the nation, including highly productive fisheries, a high productive yet increasingly rare bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem, hemispherically important migratory bird foraging grounds, habitat for endangered species, and wetlands providing a suite of important ecological support functions.'

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the Yazoo Pump project will reduce flood damages and protect citizens from the devastation of flooding and economic ruin.

'Project benefits will return $1.4 in economic benefits to the country for every $1 invested. There are over 1,300 homes in the area that are impacted by the 100 year frequency event,' the Corps said.

But American Rivers points out that during the 24 year period from 1979 to 2002, only 62 properties within the Yazoo Pumps project area filed flood insurance claims under the National Flood Insurance Program.

Drained wetlands would include lands managed by the federal government as wetland systems for fish and wildlife habitat in the Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, and the Delta National Forest; lands owned and managed by the federal government as mitigation for wetland losses caused by previously constructed federal flood control projects; and lands enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve and Conservation Reserve Programs.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that the Pumps are likely to adversely affect the federally endangered pondberry unless the Corps strictly adheres to alternatives recommended by the Service.

Both the EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service have said the project's impacts are so great that it must not proceed.

However, says Wodder, 'the Yazoo Pumps aren't dead just yet. This project has often been called the monster that just won't die. For almost 70 years, right thinking people have been beating the monster down. Today is the beginning of the end of this long journey, but we have many more steps to take together. '

'It's up to all of us to thank the EPA, and encourage it to continue its journey down this road,' Wodder said. 'When we finally reach the finish line, these monumentally important wetlands will be protected, as will the communities that depend on them.”

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