The Homeland and the Wetlands: The Yazoo backwater fight rages
FITLER — Anderson Jones Sr., a 59-year-old lifelong resident of this town in Issaquena County, remembers the last time the backwater flooding got anywhere near this bad.
“This is the revenge of 1973,” Jones says. In one closet of the home where he’s lived his entire life, there remains a 4-foot-tall stain from the floodwaters 46 years ago.
This year, more than 500,000 acres across six counties in the Mississippi Delta were inundated, including 200,000 acres of farmland. The Mississippi River at Vicksburg has been above flood stage for 88 consecutive days, the longest stretch since 1927, according to the Mississippi River Levee Board.
Experts say the flood, now 97.4 feet above sea level, is the worst since 1973. Warren County Emergency Manager John Elfer estimates that hundreds of people have been displaced with over 90 businesses, homes and churches affected in his county alone. With weeks, and maybe months, until waters subside, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency can’t yet provide an accurate damage assessment except to say that the number of people and homes affected will likely increase.
While the Delta always floods this time of year, what’s happening now is unprecedented.
Just north of Vicksburg sits the Steele Bayou Control Structure, a set of gates that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closes when the Mississippi River rises above the water level inside the structure, preventing the river from backing up into the South Delta.
On Feb. 15, the Corps shut the gates and kept them closed for a month and a half. Due to an abnormally heavy rain season, the closed gates meant overflow from the region’s rivers and creeks had nowhere to go. The result: a 35-mile-long pool, climbing just north of Highway 14 near Anguilla.
On April 1, the Mississippi River dropped to about 49 feet, a level at which the Corps could finally open the structure. But with more rain in recent days and the river rising once again — the National Weather Service projects the river near Vicksburg will crest around May 20 at 50 feet — the Corps again closed the gates on May 11. The backwater may surpass the 97.4 feet, as measured from sea level, according to the Corps, with the potential to reach between 97.5 and 98 feet. Once the Steele Bayou structure reopens, the water will drain slowly, likely not showing significant changes until July.
The disaster has led some state leaders, farmers, and other Delta residents to call for the revival of the Yazoo Pumps project, news that is deeply concerning to conservationists across the country.
The Corps conceived the pumps to protect constituents against flood events like this. In the design, the pumps would turn on once the backwater reaches 87 feet, shooting the water into the Yazoo River until the pool falls below that level. Opponents argue, however, that the project is intended to maximize agricultural production, all at the cost of depleting an already impaired system of wetlands.
In the meantime, residents like Anderson Jones say they’re caught in the crosshairs and on their own.
“I’m the only one left here”
About twenty miles north of the gate at Jones’ home in Fitler, the water was still several feet deep on a Monday in mid-April.
Jones seldom leaves his home, reserving the laborious itinerary for getting food and visiting relatives, such as a recent weekend spent with his son, who attends Belhaven University in Jackson.
But Jones is equipped with the necessary vehicles to navigate his many obstacles, as his car alone won’t do. He recalls when, during a 1979 flood, he came home dismayed that his family neglected to leave a boat for him at the edge of his underwater street. Now, after years of traversing the soaked road, he’s developed a meticulous approach.
The journey begins by parking his car off of the main road, about a quarter mile from his house. A wooden walking stick aids him through 30 yards of mud between him and his boat.
Jones, who lives off of disability checks, still wears a leg brace after he was injured in an accident with a drunk driver in 1990.
Once in his metal boat, Jones remains in the bounds of the underwater street so as not to drift away into deeper floodwater.
“This ain’t no joke, I keep telling them,” Jones says periodically, referring to those doubting the flood’s severity.
After paddling the length of nearly a football field, Jones climbs out of the boat and onto a four-wheeler, which gets him the last 100 yards or so through shallow muddy water and finally to his home.
Patch, one of his dogs, bounces across the front lawn in excitement. Jones used to train dogs – one of his lifelong hobbies – for obstacle courses, at one point owning 17 of them.
Behind Patch is a perimeter of sandbags protecting Jones’ home.
Altogether, the quarter-mile trip between his car and house takes roughly half an hour.
At this point, fighting the pain from his bad leg and arthritis, Jones is ready to sit back in his master chair, click on the TV, and toggle between reruns of his beloved Dallas Cowboys or his favorite western, The Rifleman.
Later in the day, he’ll check in with his wife and daughter in Vicksburg and his son, in Jackson. Since the road to this house flooded, he’s spent on average a week at a time without leaving, grabbing enough canned food from the store beforehand.
Jones’ connection to the place is deep. His father was born in a shotgun house in Jones’ present-day backyard. In the 1960s, he built the Joneses’ current home for $6,000.
In a four-year span after Jones’ 1990 car accident, both his mother and father passed away, as did his brother who drowned in a fishing accident.
“I’m the only one left here,” said Jones, who added the only thing that would get him to leave is if water got into the sockets in his house and disabled his electric pump. “I ain’t got nowhere to go. People have hotels or whatever they like to do, but I ain’t got nowhere to go. I just make sure my family has somewhere to go.”
Patience running thin in the South Delta
About two weeks earlier, with water in his front yard up to his knees, Jones drove to Valley Park, 13 miles southeast of Fitler, in Issaquena County, to attend a community meeting. He wanted to know his concerns would be heard.
Jones packed in with a crowd of about 50 others to discuss the flooding at a community center off U.S. Highway 61. Holly Bluff farmer Clay Adcock organized the meeting, and sent a petition around the room with the goal of convincing Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency to approve the Yazoo Pumps, a project the Corps conceived in 1941.
The EPA vetoed the project in 2008 due to concerns of the impact on wetlands, but many elected officials and landowners see the pumps as the only realistic flood control solution.
Among the political faces showing support for the pumps were Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson and representatives from the offices of Republican U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith. Days earlier, Gov. Phil Bryant reiterated his request for the EPA to reconsider the pumps, alluding to new research from the Corps.
Adcock’s petition had collected over 5,000 signatures — from South Delta residents, family members, and people who own vacation homes or hunting camps in the area — in 19 days. By comparison, the combined population of Issaquena and Sharkey counties, two of the hardest hit areas, is 5,774.
Adcock owns 4,000 acres, where he farms corn, cotton and soybeans. He, along with the other owners of the 200,000 acres of submerged cropland, are seeing any opportunities to make a profit this year slip away.
“Corn is out of the question,” Adcock said in an April interview. “Cotton is now getting close, we’ve got to see water out of here in the next two weeks.”
Soybeans will still be a viable crop for another month or so, but with recent tariffs they’re much less profitable than other plants.
Billy Whitten, 72, inherited his Valley Park farm, where he grows corn and soybeans. Nearly all of his 1,440 acres are underwater, and the 25 acres that aren’t dried in just the last two weeks. With just one employee, his son, Whitten said he’s in better financial shape than other farmers, but will still see significant losses.
“Most people think farmers got it made. ‘Man you just don’t plant and get your insurance,'” Whitten said, referring to the 75 percent in losses most policies cover. “But most of my land is rented, the landlord is expecting his rent whether I got a crop or not. With the rent, living expenses, keeping the ground clean, and odds and ends, we’re already way in the hole.”
“Even with the insurance, in all likelihood you’re going to absorb a pretty significant loss,” said Dr. Keith Coble, a professor at Mississippi State University who focuses on crop insurance. “It will help but it won’t make them whole.”
At the April Valley Park meeting, Whitten led the opening prayer. After Adcock introduced the petition, he invited Thompson to speak. The congressman, in front of a largely pro-Pumps crowd, took a moderate tone, suggesting there may be multiple solutions.
“I encourage you to be open-minded about it,” Thompson said.
“Part of the solution might be buying some people out that are so low that it’s cheaper to buy the land and buy the property and just move the house. There has to be some local commitments that go with federal investments in order to make harmony.”
Thompson also emphasized the importance of updating building codes.
“Some people who live in the country, like most of us [will say], ‘You can’t tell me what I can build on my land,'” he said. “Well if you want the pumps, you’re going to have to agree that you’re going to have to set up a permit system where you have to elevate your houses to a certain level to get it.”
The following Wednesday, a Vicksburg Post editorial panned the congressman, declaring: “Thompson’s leadership lacking in push for Corps’ plan to ease backwater flooding.”
“And while this time we are thankful for (Thompson’s) support for (the Yazoo Pumps) … we are disappointed by what appears to be lukewarm support and what appears him coming late to the party,” the paper wrote.
Jones was also displeased.
“I didn’t want to hear that, because there’s some people not able to move,” he said. “This is my home, I don’t have to pay rent here. For the insurance, I pay $800 once a year, compared to paying once a month (in rent).”
Issaquena County Supervisor Eddie Hatcher said the county had updated rules around housing permits to require elevated structures, but they wouldn’t apply to previously built homes. Jones’ house, for instance, is what he calls a “granddaddy” structure; because its floor is attached to a concrete foundation it can’t be elevated.
Thompson argued it’s important to acknowledge the impacts one river community can have on the other communities downstream.
“The water has to go somewhere, and part of that is, if you push it further down river, what does that mean for the people down stream?” Thompson said after the meeting. “Obviously those folks are going to oppose that. We all want to be good stewards of the land, and in being good stewards, it’s all of the land, not just the land where I live.”
‘It’s a horrible project, it’s a terrible investment’
The EPA’s 2008 veto was only the 12th in agency history under the 1972 Clean Water Act. Melissa Samet, senior water resources counsel with the National Wildlife Federation, says the Yazoo Pumps’ impact on wetlands would be more than eight and a half times the wetlands impacted in the other 11 vetoes combined. That figure and the veto was based on the Corps’ assumption that the project would only impact 67,000 acres of wetlands, although an independent EPA study determined the actual impact to be 200,000 acres.
“A lot of the area that would be drained is actually National Wildlife Refuge land, National Forest land, Wetland Reserve and Conservation Reserve Program lands and mitigation lands for other water resource projects,” said Samet, who’s studied the pumps project since 1998. “So a lot of the land that’s going to have the worst ecological effects is land that is actually where taxpayers have paid to purchase and manage it as wetlands.”
The project in 2008 came with a $220 million price tag, one that Samet estimates would be dramatically higher today. If approved, the pumps would be funded entirely with federal tax dollars.
In late 2017, the Senate Appropriations Committee, led by its then chairman, Thad Cochran, included a rider in a spending bill that would have bypassed the EPA’s veto altogether. Although the rider was eventually removed from the bill, the move prompted American Rivers, an advocacy group, to list the Big Sunflower River, which flows into the backwater region, as one of the nation’s most endangered rivers.
In 2004, the late U.S. Sen. John McCain called it one of the worst projects ever conceived by Congress. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, over 540 independent scientists, and 9 out 10 Mississippians who submitted comments during the project’s review all supported the EPA’s veto.
As many conservationists describe, the Delta’s bottomland hardwood wetlands create one of the most special and unique habitats in the country. Twenty percent of the nation’s ducks, 450 different species, including 257 species of birds, rely on these wetlands’ natural resources.
Opponents also argue that the project is disguised as a flood control project, when in reality its purpose is to boost the state’s agricultural economy.
“We’re holding out this panacea of some flood control project when it’s designed to drain wetlands so farmers can increase agricultural production,” Samet said. “Basically, so they can farm earlier and more intensively. And the Corps own study said that 80 percent of the benefits would come from agriculture.”
“I think everyone pretty much agrees that the wetlands in the backwater area are of national significance,” said Paul Hartfield, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “These wetlands provide places [for migratory species] to refuel, to feed, and to rest.”
Wetlands also process nutrients and pollutants, Hartfield added. An overflow of nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico has created what are known as “dead zones”; as the Nature Conservancy explains on its website, the nutrients “trigger algae blooms that choke off oxygen in water and make it difficult, if not impossible, for marine life to survive.” NOAA estimates that Gulf dead zones cost U.S. seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year.
Will new data save the pumps?
As of now, the EPA is awaiting new research from the Corps, which project manager Kent Parrish characterizes as more precise than what the agency submitted in 2008.
“Basically, over the last ten years we’ve continued to gather wetlands information,” Parrish said. He referenced both LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data, which is used to collect information on the land’s elevation, as well as a tool they’ve installed called piezometers.
The Corps is using the piezometers to measure the saturation in the soil over a period of time. That way, Parrish explained, the research will indicate which water sources are sustaining the wetlands, whether that’s overflow from rivers that flow into the South Delta, or direct precipitation.
Jill Mastrototaro, the policy director with Audubon Mississippi, and Samet counter that the distinction is irrelevant.
“The pumps will drain and destroy these wetlands regardless of what their sustaining water source is,” she said via email. “The EPA and an independent hydrologic review found that the project would drain and damage up to 200,000 acres of ecologically significant wetlands.”
Sustaining wetlands is not just about how much water is left in the area, Samet explained, but also about where the water is and how long it can be there.
“The way (the pumps project) works, conceptually, is it keeps the water from reaching a higher elevation,” she said. “It doesn’t just pull water that is there off, it keeps water from reaching that elevation…And that means the wetland doesn’t have the amount of water it needs and the time it needs to make it a wetland.
“There are all these complicated processes involved in what is a wetland, and it matters if there’s water on it and for how long the water’s on it, how often water is there, how deep it goes, how long it stays in place. It’s not quite so simple and clearcut.”
The compilation of the new research, though, is far from complete, Parrish said. He’s hesitant to provide a timetable, saying additional time will be needed for internal reviews, leaving uncertainty around when the EPA can begin to reconsider its veto.
Until then, the agency has decided to remain neutral.
“The EPA strongly supports the goals of improved flood protection and wetland protection for the residents of the Mississippi Delta,” said EPA spokesperson James Pinkney via email April 5. “The EPA will work with the Corps and the local Levee Board to review updated data and other information as it relates to our regulatory programs and oversight.”