Citing the EPA’s decision to restore its veto of the Yazoo Backwater Area Pumps Project, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has withdrawn its support for the project, which would have been the final piece of a massive federal flood protection system that has been in the making for 80 years.
The Corps, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announced its decision in a Dec. 15 notice filed in federal court.
The notice provided a memo issued Dec. 11 by Maj. Gen. Diana Holland, the commanding officer for the USACE’s Mississippi Valley District, indicating the Corps would reverse its Jan. 15, 2021, decision to green-light the project. The project—with cost estimates ranging from $220 million to $440 million—was intended to provide 100-year flood protection for the lower Mississippi River valley.
“The Corps remains deeply concerned about how flooding impacts the residents and the economy of the lower Mississippi Delta, including environmental justice issues affecting the population,” Holland wrote in the memo.
In a statement to ENR, Holland said the project “has not been canceled by the Corps” and still has Congressional authorization for construction. “I simply withdrew that (Jan. 15, 2021) document until we are able to further work with EPA and other federal, state and local stakeholders to address any outstanding concerns,” Holland says
Following EPA’s Lead
The Corps’ decision comes less than one month after the Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to Jaime Pinkham, acting assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, announcing EPA was reversing its 2020 decision to move forward with the project. In the letter, filed Nov. 17, 2021, the EPA said it determined that the pump project was prohibited by the agency’s 2008 Clean Water Act Final Determination, which indicated the project could impact thousands of acres of wetlands.
“The November 2020 decision by the EPA leadership failed to reflect the recommendations from the career scientists and technical staff,” the EPA wrote in a Nov. 17, 2021, press release.
The decisions by the Corps and the EPA follow a federal lawsuit that a coalition of conservation groups had filed in April against the Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The suit claimed that USACE “severely underestimated the pumps’ devastating impacts and failed to inform the public about the true costs of the project.”
The coalition, known as Earthjustice, filed the suit on behalf of American Rivers, the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and Healthy Gulf. In a statement issued Dec. 15, Earthjustice took credit for prompting the Corps’ withdrawal decision.
Stu Gillespie, senior attorney with Earthjustice, told ENR that the coalition voluntarily dismissed its lawsuit against the Corps on Dec. 15, following the agency’s announcement. Earthjustice also dismissed its EPA suit following that agency’s decision in November.
“This is certainly a victory,” Gillespie says. “And I think it’s another reminder of the power of science, of law, and the public’s voice in holding agencies accountable. It’s our position no more time or taxpayer money should be spent pursuing this project.”
An 80-Year Undertaking
The pumps were to be the last remaining feature in the Yazoo Backwater Project, which received congressional authorization in 1941 and moved forward piece by piece in the eight decades that followed. The EPA had pegged the cost of the pump project at $220 million in 2008, although more recent estimates put that number as high as $440 million.
After sitting on the shelf for 12 years, the project appeared to be moving forward at the end of 2020. At the tail end of the Trump administration, the EPA moved to revive the project and allow for project elements that the agency had vetoed during the Bush Administration in 2008. In November 2021, the agency changed course.
The Corps followed suit in December 2020, reversing its previous opposition to the pumps, saying, “These changes are not anticipated to convert any wetlands to non-wetlands because precipitation is the driving force in sustaining wetlands in the Yazoo Study Area.”
In January 2021, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler visited Mississippi to sign a pledge to complete the project, which had gained federal and state support amidst historic flooding that ravaged the South Delta for nearly every year of the past decade.
Norma Jean Mattei, a member of the Mississippi River Commission and civil engineering professor at the University of New Orleans, says pumps are a critical missing piece of flood protection in the overall Yazoo Backwater Project. “The project is 90% finished, and the Yazoo pumps are part of that unfinished work. The system won’t operate as designed until it’s 100% complete,” she says.
Mattei points to the historic spring 2019 floods in the Mississippi River Basin that flooded over 550,000 acres of the Yazoo Backwater area, leaving much of the area underwater for over six months.
“I’m not quite sure how you can manage that much water without pumps, and I’m not sure what the people of the Yazoo are going to do next,” she says. “I’m sure they’re looking at a variety of options.”
It came as a surprise, Mattei says, that federal agencies withdrew the support they had given just a year ago for the Yazoo pumps.
“It really looked as though EPA had taken a look at the redesign and at more data and had resolved those concerns,” she says. “Evidently, you get different people in decision-making seats, and different decisions are made.”