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Defying gravity in the south Delta

Last spring’s rains brought more flooding to the South Delta, an area that has seen more than its share of misery from the mud, mosquitoes and snakes left in their homes when water backs up across the region. At one point, more than 150,000 acres were inundated.

As a writer noted in the latest Mississippi Levee Board newsletter, the Mississippi Delta is like a giant bathtub with the Delta bluffs forming the east side and the mainline levee for the Mississippi River the west. The gates where the Yazoo River and Steele Bayou empty into the Mississippi provide the drain.

When the Mississippi River, which drains the water from 31 states and two provinces in Canada, reaches flood stage, the Corps of Engineers closes the Steel Bayou gates to prevent that water from backing into the Delta.

With the gates closed, water from the Yazoo and Steele Bayou and other streams has nowhere to go but into the homes and farms and hardwood forests in the south end of the Delta.

The problem was supposed to be alleviated by a pumping station that would have lifted the water over the Yazoo Levee and into the Mississippi River. The pumps were first authorized in 1941.

“If we had the pumps today, we would have a foot and a half less water where we are now,” said Jim Wanamaker, the Levee Board’s chief engineer, addressing about 200 persons assembled for an update at the proposed Yazoo Backwater Pumping Station near Vicksburg in early June.

“The people here fear flooding every year with good reason. Without the pumps, they have no assurance of avoiding flooding.”

Although the pumps have been authorized for 62 years, the project has been held up by environmental groups who claim the main beneficiaries would large farmers who could clear more land.

Apparently, no one from those organizations has ever talked to Ruby Johnson, a black lady who has spoken eloquently about the problems the flooding causes for lower income families in the region. Mrs. Johnson says she has no desire to leave the area, as members of the environmental community have suggested.

The project has also won the support of area politicians, including Mississippi Republican Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran and Democrats Rep. Bennie Thompson and Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who rarely agree on anything.

Musgrove is from Batesville, a town in north Mississippi that lies seven miles below the flood control reservoir built by the Corps of Engineers in the 1940s. Until the construction of the reservoir system in north Mississippi, cities like Batesville and Grenada flooded routinely. Now, residents never think about the danger.

Folks in the south Delta would like to have that same sense of security.

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