The Backwater Flood isn’t the same as the Mississippi River flood, but they are connected.
After the Great Flood of 1927, the federal government stepped in and decided to fix things. They developed plans to help hold the course of the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi drains 41 percent of the water in the United States. During heavy rainfall or snowmelt events, the river is tasked with moving an incomprehensible amount of water out of the Midwest and into the Gulf of Mexico.
Because water always takes the path of least resistance, the natural process includes flooding lands along the river and its tributaries. Left to its own devices, the Mississippi River would eventually flow in a relatively straight line down the middle of the country, changing its course and taking surrounding land at will.
To stop that natural eventuality the government developed plans to maintain the banks as they existed in 1927 and minimize the impact of floods on landowners. To this effect, the government came up with numerous projects to channel flood waters in the direction it wanted them to go.
The original plan included a project called the Eudora Floodway in Arkansas that would have moved flood water away from the Mississippi Delta. The good people of Arkansas, though, weren’t pleased, and they won government favor to stop the Eudora Floodway from being built.
The government then developed a plan for the lower Mississippi Delta, the Yazoo Backwater Project, to channel flood waters to a central point at Steele Bayou, and then pump the high water out of that location. Congress authorized that project in 1941, and it was 75 percent complete by 1969.
When President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the agency was empowered to weigh in on any effort that may adversely impact the environment. For the Yazoo Backwater Project, that meant an extra step to evaluate the pumps that would complete the final 25 percent of the project. Those pumps were designed to move flood water out of the Yazoo Basin at Steele Bayou to a location created by almost 40 years of planning and building levees and channels.
The EPA evaluation stopped the project and added several years to study whether the plan’s completion would impact the environment.
Thirty-eight years of red tape and bureaucratic process later, the EPA in 2008 decided that completing the Yazoo Backwater Project was not a good idea.
“Construction and operation of the proposed pumping station would adversely impact at least 67,000 acres of wetlands and other waters of the United States,” the EPA states on its website. “EPA has determined that these impacts would result in unacceptable adverse effects on fishery areas and wildlife.”
EPA decided that the pumps at Steele Bayou, pumps that would move the water out of the South Delta, could not be completed. In effect, the government had spent 40 years planning and building levees and channels guaranteed to flood the land north of the gates at Steele Bayou when both the river and the local rain amounts are high.
The gates at Steele Bayou are designed to drain the water out of the South Delta when the Mississippi River is falling. Beginning last October, however, the river began rising, and the gates could not be opened. Combined with the unusual amount of rain in the area, the closed gates kept the rainwater on the land, flooding it.
The natural drainage process at the gates is minimal and slow. To be effective at preventing flooding, pumps are needed to move floodwaters out of the South Delta when the Mississippi is high. Today, the gates only allow the natural flow of water down, out of the South Delta and into the Yazoo River, which then drains into the Mississippi.
Entities in favor of completing the pumps, such as the Mississippi Levee Board, claim the drain rate with the pumps would also be low, resulting in a negligible impact on the Yazoo or Mississippi river levels. Wetlands north of the Steele Bayou control structure would also be maintained with the pumps, they claim.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) is actively pushing the Trump administration to revive the project and reverse the EPA’s veto, reports E&E News. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Army Corps chief R.D. James have promised Hyde-Smith that they will take a second look at completing the project.
If and when the pumps are completed, they will come too late for many residents of the South Delta today. The closed gates at Steele Bayou are responsible for flooding some 550,000 acres of land, much of it prime farmland that may not see a crop this year.
Wildlife is stranded and imperiled because it has nowhere to go. Predators and prey share the same small patches of dry ground.
(Ronni Mott contributed to this story)