/The Homeland and the Wetlands The Yazoo backwater fight rages

The Homeland and the Wetlands The Yazoo backwater fight rages

The Homeland and The Wetlands: The Yazoo Backwater Fight rages FITLER — Anderson Jones Sr. is a 59 year old lifelong resident of this small town in Issaquena County. He remembers when the backwater flooding was the worst. Jones claims that this is the 1973 revenge. There is a 4-foot tall mark from the floodwaters that he left behind in the closet where he lived his whole life. More than 500,000 acres in six Mississippi Delta counties were affected by the floods this year. This includes 200,000 acres of farmland. According to the Mississippi River Levee Board, Vicksburg’s Mississippi River has been at flood stage for 88 consecutive day, the longest stretch of time since 1927. Experts believe the flood is now at 97.4 feet above the sea level and the worst since 1973. John Elfer, Warren County Emergency Manager, estimates that hundreds have been evacuated and more than 90 homes and churches in the affected area. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency cannot yet give an accurate assessment of the damage caused by the flooding. It is likely that more people and homes will be affected as the waters recede. The Delta floods every year at this time, but what is happening now is extraordinary. The Steele Bayou Control Structure is located just north of Vicksburg. This set of gates, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closes whenever the Mississippi River rises to the level of the structure, prevents the river from backing into the South Delta. The Corps closed the gates on February 15, and they remained closed for over a month. The Corps closed the gates because of an unusually heavy rainfall season. This meant that overflow from the area’s creeks and rivers had no place to go. It created a pool that stretches 35 miles, which is located just north of Highway 14 in Anguilla. The Mississippi River fell to 49 feet on April 1st, which was the level at which Corps could finally open the structure. The Corps closed the gates again on May 11 after more rain and the river rising again. According to the National Weather Service, the river near Vicksburg will reach its highest point around 50 feet on May 20. According to the Corps, the backwater could exceed the 97.4 feet measured from sea level and have the potential to reach 97.5 to 98 feet. The water will slowly drain once the Steele Bayou structure is reopened. It won’t likely show significant changes until July. Some state leaders, farmers and residents of the Delta have called for the revival the Yazoo Pumps Project. This is a disturbing development for conservationists all across the country. The Corps designed the pumps to protect their constituents from flood events such as this. The pumps would be activated once the backwater reaches 87ft. This would shoot water into the Yazoo River until it reaches that level. Opponents claim that the project is designed to increase agricultural production at the expense of the already fragile system of wetlands. Anderson Jones, a resident of Fitler, claims they are caught in the crosshairs. The water was several feet deep at Jones’ Fitler home, twenty miles away. This was mid-April. Jones rarely leaves his house, and he reserves the difficult itinerary for food shopping or visiting family, like a weekend spent with his son who attends Belhaven University, Jackson. Jones has the tools to navigate through his many obstacles. His car won’t cut it. Jones recalls the 1979 flood that left him dismayed when his family failed to leave a boat at his street’s edge. After years of navigating the wet road, he has developed a method that he uses to be precise. His journey starts by parking his car on the main road about a quarter of a mile from his home. He uses a wooden walking stick to help him navigate the 30 yard stretch of mud between his boat and him. Jones, who is a disabled person, wears a leg brace because he was in an accident with drunk drivers in 1990. Jones must remain in the limits of the underwater street once he is in his boat. This will prevent him from drifting into deeper floodwaters. Jones repeatedly says, “This isn’t a joke, they keep telling me,” referring to those who doubt the severity of the flood. Jones paddles the length of a football field and then climbs onto a four-wheeler to get the last 100 meters through shallow, muddy water, and finally back to his home. In excitement, Patch, one his dogs, runs across the front yard. Jones trained dogs for obstacle courses. He owned 17 dogs at one time. Jones’ home is protected by a perimeter made of sandbags behind Patch. The quarter-mile journey between Jones’ house and his car takes about half an hour. Jones, who is still fighting pain from arthritis and a bad leg, is now ready to relax in his master chair and click on the TV to switch between his favorite Western, The Rifleman, or his Dallas Cowboys reruns. Later that day, Jones will check in with his daughter and wife in Vicksburg, and his son in Jackson. He has been staying at the house for about a week since the flood. He also carries enough canned food to last him the entire time. Jones has a deep connection to the area. Jones’ backyard is where Jones’ father was born. He built their current home in 1960 for $6,000. After Jones’ 1990 car accident, Jones built the Joneses’ current home for $6,000. His mother and father died in four years, as did Jones’ brother, who drowned in an accident while fishing. Jones said, “I’m alone here.” He added that water could get into his electrical sockets and disable his electric pump. “I don’t have anywhere to go. While others may have their own hotels and other activities, I don’t have anywhere to go. I make sure my family has somewhere they can go.” Jones had driven to Valley Park in Issaquena County 13 miles southeast from Fitler two weeks prior. He was soaked to the knees by water. Jones wanted to be heard. Jones joined a group of 50 people to discuss flooding at a community centre off U.S. Highway 61. Clay Adcock, a Holly Bluff farmer, organized the meeting and circulated a petition to the room. The petition sought to convince Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to approve the Yazoo Pumps project that the Corps conceived back in 1941. Although the EPA vetoed this project in 2008 because of concerns about the impact on wetlands and other issues, many elected officials and landowners believe that the pumps are the best flood control option. Bennie Thompson, a Democratic U.S. Representative, and representatives of Republican U.S. Senators were among the politicians who supported the pumps. Roger Wicker, Cindy Hyde Smith. Governor. Phil Bryant reaffirmed his request that the EPA reconsider the pumps and referred to the Corps’ new research. Adcock’s petition has received over 5,000 signatures from South Delta residents, their families, and those who live in or visit the area. It was completed in just 19 days. The combined population of Issaquena County and Sharkey counties — two of the most affected areas — is 5,774. Adcock farms corn, cotton, and soybeans on 4,000 acres. Adcock, like the owners of the submerged cropland of 200,000 acres, is not seeing any profit opportunities this year. Adcock stated in April that corn was out of the question. Adcock stated that while Cotton is getting closer, they will need to see water in the next two week. Soybeans are still viable for another month, but due to recent tariffs, they are less profitable than other crops. Billy Whitten, 72 years old, inherits his Valley Park farm where he grows soybeans and corn. Nearly all his 1,440 acres are under water, with 25 acres still not dried within the last two weeks. Whitten, his son, said that he is in better financial health than most farmers but will still experience significant losses. Most people believe that farmers have it all. Whitten stated, “Man, you don’t just plant and get insurance,” referring to the 75 per cent of losses that most policies cover. “But the majority of my land is rented and the landlord expects his rent regardless of whether or not I get a crop. We’re already in trouble with rent, living expenses and keeping the ground clean. Whitten was the one who led the opening prayer at the April Valley Park meeting. Adcock presented the petition and invited Thompson to speak. In front of a pro-Pumps crowd he spoke in a moderate tone suggesting that there could be many solutions. Thompson stated, “I encourage your to be open-minded about this.” Thompson said that buying out low-income people might help to make it more affordable to purchase the land, buy the property, and then move the house. Thompson stressed the importance of maintaining current building codes. He said that some people living in the country will say, “You can’t tell my what I can build on mine land.” “Well, if you want to pump the water, you will have to agree to set up a permit system that requires you to raise your homes to a certain height to get the pumps.” A Vicksburg Post editorial criticized the congressman. “While we are grateful for (Thompson) support for the Yazoo Pumps),… we are disappointed at what appears to be lukewarm support, and what seems to indicate he coming late to the party.” Jones was also dissatisfied. He said, “I didn’t want to hear that because there are some people who can’t move.” “This is my house, so I don’t need to rent it. I only pay $800 for insurance once a year, as opposed to once a month in rent. Jones’ house is an example of what Hatcher calls a “granddaddy”. Its floor is attached to concrete foundation so it cannot be raised. Thompson said it was important to recognize the impact one river community has on other downstream communities. Thompson stated that water must go somewhere. “If you push it further downstream, what does that mean to the people downstream?” Thompson added after the meeting. “Obviously, those people are going to object to that. “Obviously those people are going to oppose that. Melissa Samet is the senior water resources counsel at the National Wildlife Federation. She says that the Yazoo Pumps would have a greater impact on wetlands than the 11 other vetoes. The Corps assumed that the project would impact only 67,000 acres of wetlands. However, an independent EPA study found the true impact to be 200,000 acres. Samet, who has been studying the pumps project since 1998, said that a lot of the land that would be drained was actually National Wildlife Refuge, National Forest, and Wetland Reserve and Conservation Reserve Program land. Also, mitigation lands for water resource projects are found in this area. “So, a lot the land that’s going be the most ecologically damaging is the land that taxpayers have paid to buy and manage as wetlands.” Samet estimates that the price tag for the 2008 project was $220 million. The pumps would be entirely funded by federal tax dollars if they were approved. The Senate Appropriations Committee was led by Thad Cochran as its chairman. A rider in a spending bill would have allowed the EPA to bypass the veto. The rider was removed from the bill but American Rivers, an advocacy organization, listed the Big Sunflower River which flows into the backwater area, as one the most endangered rivers in the country. It was called one of the worst congressional projects in 2004 by the late U.S. Senator John McCain. The U.S. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 540 independent scientists and 9 of 10 Mississippians who provided comments during the review all supported the EPA veto. Conservationists often describe the Delta’s hardwood wetlands as one of the most unique and special habitats in the nation. These wetlands are home to 20% of all the country’s duck species. They also support 450 species of birds including 257 species. Opponents claim that the project is being disguised as a flood control plan, but in fact it is intended to increase the state’s agricultural economic growth. Samet stated, “We’re offering this panacea of some flooding control project when it is designed to drain wetlands so that farmers can increase their agricultural production.” “Basically, to allow them to farm earlier and more intensively. According to the Corps’ own study, agriculture would provide 80 percent of the benefits. Fish and Wildlife Service. Hartfield said that wetlands are places for migratory animals to rest, refuel and feed. Wetlands also help to process pollutants and nutrients. Overflowing nutrients in the Gulf of Mexico have created “dead areas”; the Nature Conservancy explains that the nutrients “trigger algal blooms that choke out oxygen in water and make marine life difficult to survive and cost the U.S. seafood industry and tourism $82 million each year. The EPA awaits new research from Corps. Kent Parrish, project manager, describes it as being more accurate than the 2008 submissions. Parrish stated that “Basically, we’ve continued collecting wetlands information over the past ten years.” Parrish referred to both LIDAR data (Light Detection and Ranging), which is used for information about the land’s elevation, and a tool called piezometers. The Corps uses the piezometers over a time period to determine the saturation of the soil. Parrish explained that this will allow the Corps to determine which water sources are supporting the wetlands. This could be overflow from the South Delta rivers or direct precipitation. Jill Mastrototaro (the policy director at Audubon Mississippi) and Samet argue that this distinction is irrelevant. She stated via email that the pumps would drain and destroy these wetlands regardless of their source of water. “The EPA and an independent hydrologic assessment found that the project would drain wetlands and cause damage to up to 200,000 acres of ecologically important wetlands.” Samet explained that it is more than just how much water is available in an area. It is also about where and how long the water can stay there. She explained that the pumps project works conceptually by keeping water from rising to higher elevations. It doesn’t pull water off; it prevents water from reaching higher elevations. This means that the wetland isn’t getting the water it needs or the time it requires to become a wetland. There are many complicated steps involved in determining what is a “wetland”. It matters if it has water, for how long, how deep, and how long it remains in place. It’s not as simple as it seems.
Parrish stated that the compilation of the new research is not yet complete. Parrish is hesitant to give a timeline, saying that additional time will be required for internal reviews. This leaves uncertainty about when the EPA may reconsider its veto. The agency will remain neutral until then. James Pinkney, EPA spokesperson, stated via email April 5 that “The EPA strongly supports goals of improved flood prevention and wetland preservation for the residents of Mississippi Delta.” “The EPA will collaborate with the Corps and local Levee Boards to review updated data as it relates our regulatory programs, oversight,” read our whole Flooding in Mississippi series.