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For very rain day Delta needs backwater pumps

Bob Eley says he can understand how environmentalists would wonder why someone in Bolivar County, Miss., would be concerned about flood control problems in the South Delta.

After all, the southern tip of the Delta is a two-hour car ride from his home. But, Eley says, environmentalists don't understand a lot about what goes on in the Delta, both from the standpoint of flood control or the economic well-being of the region.

Eley, whose “day” job is county engineer for Bolivar County, attempted to shed some light on the region's flood control problems during the Delta Council's mid-year board of directors' meeting in Stoneville, Miss. He called it an “outsider's” perspective on the long-delayed South Delta Pumping Station.

The Pumps, as they are sometimes referred to, have been criticized by environmental organizations ranging from the Sierra Club to the National Wildlife Federation and by the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger, the state's largest newspaper. Both have called on Congress to “buy out” South Delta residents and let the region go back to nature.

“The world learned what it means for the pumps not to work and the levees to break on Aug. 30, 2005,” said Eley, referring to the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. “If anyone, anywhere thinks that we don't need pumps in the South Delta, they are either insincere or they just don't know the facts.”

Eley displayed a map of the United States that illustrates why the federal government has long played a role in Delta flood protection. Rainfall runoff from 41 percent of the United States must pass by Vicksburg, Miss., which is located near the terminus of the Yazoo River in the South Delta.

“This is precisely why Congress passed laws that made Delta flood protection a federal responsibility — water from Montana to New York has to pass by Vicksburg,” he said. “When it gets high, the Mississippi River acts just like a levee and stops our drainage from evacuating the South Delta, through the Yazoo River at Vicksburg.”

A pumping station was included in the first comprehensive water management plan adopted in 1941 because the Corps of Engineers recognized the water from the Yazoo River would be trapped behind the levees and the closed Mississippi River backwater floodgates during high water.

“In fact, a Mr. Hands from Rolling Fork told Congress in 1940 the South Delta was 10 feet to 12 feet worse off after the Mississippi River levees were constructed, and the only way to evacuate Mississippi backwater was to enclose the South Delta with levees and install pumps.”

But why should someone from Bolivar County, which is nearly 100 miles north of Vicksburg, be concerned? Because all or parts of 10 Delta counties send their drainage water through the South Delta, says Eley.

“Not all of these counties are affected by a backwater flood, but every one of these 10 counties send their rainfall runoff to the Steele Bayou outlet to be discharged into the Mississippi River,” he noted.

“The reason Bolivar County is so connected is that when the Mississippi River is high, our water keeps coming to the South Delta from this 4,000-square-mile area — a six-county area trapped behind two levees, one on the Yazoo River, and one on the Mississippi without any way to evacuate our rainfall runoff.”

The 4,000-square-mile area is equivalent to the size of the state of Delaware, he says, “and it is not a matter of if, but rather when you will need pumps to lift these floodwaters over the levees and out of the South Delta.”

Environmental groups brought lawsuits that stopped the Corps of Engineers' Yazoo River clean-out work in 1990, claiming it was causing wetlands destruction; it was outdated; too expensive; and was nothing but a farm drainage project that was unneeded.

“Now you are hearing the same thing 15 years later from the same groups about the pumps,” said Eley. (The Corps of Engineers recently released its final report on the Yazoo Backwater Area Reformulation that includes plans for the pumping station.)

“We are already hearing that the South Delta people are being unreasonable and won't agree to compromise.”

Eley says no one should be expected to be trapped behind two levees without a plan to evacuate excess rainfall from an area the size of Delaware. “But I think the local people have dealt in good faith.”

Among other steps, people in the South Delta have agreed to:

  • Reduce the size of the pump by more than 40 percent below the 1982 plan for the facility.

  • Allow 7 feet more water to pool before the pumps would be activated.

  • Purchase 55,000 acres of reforestation easements and convert agricultural land into forest.

  • Support the reforestation easement concept so the project provides about 10 times as much reforestation as proposed in the earlier plan.

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