The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • Delta Flooding Revives Discussion of the Yazoo Backwater Pump Project

  • April 12th, 2019 — by Alex Dominguez — Category: Environmental Law  Flooding

  • Over the past several months, the state of Mississippi has been hit with severe rainfall, causing intense flooding, especially along the Mississippi Delta (Delta). Approximately 500,000 acres in the Delta are underwater, 200,000 of which is agricultural farmland. This rainfall has swelled the Mississippi River and its levees, including the Yazoo Backwater Levee, causing some to resurrect old discussions of the Yazoo Backwater Pumping Project.

    First introduced in the 1940s, the Yazoo Backwater Pump Project is a decades old project located on the south side of the Delta. This project, commonly referred to as the Yazoo Pump Project, is a 14,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) pumping station that would “pump surface water out of the Yazoo Backwater Area during high water events on the Mississippi River.” U.S. Envtl. Prot. Agency, Final Determination of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Assistant Administrator for Water Pursuant to Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act Concerning the Proposed Yazoo Backwater Area Pumps Project, Issaquena County, Mississippi (2008).

    In 2008 during the Bush Administration, after much controversy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denied the Yazoo Pump Project pursuant to its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. Section 404(c) authorizes the EPA to “prohibit, restrict, or deny” a location “as a disposal site for the discharge of dredged or fill material” when the discharge “will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas.” Id. at i.

    The EPA justified its decision to deny the project based on its determination that the project “would significantly degrade the critical ecological functions” of the area, “including those functions that support wildlife and fisheries resources.” Id. Further, the EPA found that the pumping station’s operation “would result in unacceptable adverse effects on fishery areas and wildlife.” Id. at ii.

    Now, the project may be on its way back. On April 3, 2019, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated during a Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee meeting that the EPA is beginning the process of reevaluating its 2008 decision to deny the Yazoo Pump Project. Administrator Wheeler stated:

    “[the EPA is] reviewing the decision that was made in 2008 to veto the Army Corps plan for Yazoo Pumps, trying to determine, in particular with the latest flooding, if that changes our determination and the work that went on in 2008 on reviewing that project.” FY 2020 Budget Request for the Environmental Protection Agency, Hearing on FY2020 EPA Budget Request Before the Subcomm. on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies of the Senate Comm. on Appropriations, 116th Cong. (2019) (Statement of EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler).

    Opponents of the plan, such as the environmental protection group American Rivers, believe this is an attempt by large landowners to increase agricultural production all while draining and damaging vital wetlands. These opponents also cite the adverse impacts to the more than 450 species of fish and wildlife that rely on the wetlands. In contrast, several notable supporters have surfaced. Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith asked EPA Administrator Wheeler for a commitment on reanalyzing the project. Likewise, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has toured the affected areas and tweeted out his support for the project on several occasions.

    The Yazoo Pumping Project has been around since the early 1940’s. Over the past eight decades, the project has been delayed, denied, and most recently, revived. While proponents of the plan are hopeful a Trump EPA will provide a different outcome, only time will tell.

  • This material is based upon work supported by the National Agricultural library, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

  • Alex Dominguez
    2L at the University of Mississippi School of Law

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