‘Toxic, stagnant, nasty water’: Mississippi River Commission hears about flooding concerns from the Delta to Gulf Coast

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VICKSBURG — Warren County resident Lauren Stubblefield, a flood victim and seventh generation Mississippian, stood in front of the Mississippi River Commission and painted a vivid image of her home on Floweree Road.

“Imagine your favorite place in the world,” Stubblefield said. “Close your eyes and imagine that place filling up with several feet of  the most toxic, stagnant, nasty water you can imagine. And imagine that water sitting there for months as everything rots in it. Imagine the animals that starve because you can’t feed them.

Warren County resident Lauren Stubblefield addresses the Mississippi River Commission during its annual low-water inspection in Vicksburg.

 

“Then imagine going back to that place when the water goes down. Imagine the filth and the mold, the fungus, the smell. If you haven’t experienced that, you need to go up just a few miles up the road. And you can see it all. That is the truth that we are living.”

Other flood victims, local and state leaders joined Stubblefield during the commission’s annual low-water inspection on Wednesday to air their feelings about federal flood control policies, mainly focusing on the months of backwater flooding in the Delta and the deaths of marine wildlife in the Gulf.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who was the first to speak, criticized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ reliance on the Bonnet Carré spillway in Louisiana.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Farm equipment is nearly submerged in flood water in north Issaquena County, Miss., Friday, April 5, 2019.

When the Mississippi River is high enough, the Corps opens the spillway to prevent flooding in New Orleans and surrounding areas. However, the opening also allows freshwater into the Mississippi Sound, killing species such as oysters, crabs and shrimp. Until this year’s openings, the Corps had never opened the spillway twice in a year, and never in consecutive years.

“Not one of us in Mississippi thinks this is a one-off event,” Hosemann said. “Not one of us. We think this will occur again. The time to address these issues is today. You have the authority to do that.”

Hosemann, presenting alongside the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, cited subsequent losses totaling 95 percent of the state’s oysters, 56 percent of shrimp, and 50 percent of blue crab.

Hosemann requested the Corps conduct an environmental impact statement of the Mississippi Sound, as well as a study of how the Morganza Floodway — a seldom used spillway that diverts water into the Atchafalaya Basin — could help mitigate the damages.

“The amount of water that’s coming down the Mississippi River is historic,” he said. “We recognize that you have to operate the entire valley from Iowa to Mississippi. However, when you get to the Morganza spillway, you have the flexibility to divert some of that flood water.”

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann speaks to the Mississippi River Commission during its annual low-river inspection in Vicksburg.

A ‘pumps’ decision awaits

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awaits new data on the Yazoo Pumps in order to review it’s 2008 veto of the project, state and local officials echoed Stubblefield’s impatience.

The flood took two lives in June, when two people drowned trying to escape the waters in Holly Bluff. Peter Nimrod, chief engineer of the Mississippi River Levee Board blamed the tragedy directly on the EPA’s veto of the pumps.

“Those two who drowned are on your hands, EPA,” Nimrod said.

About half a million acres went underwater from the flood, including about 230,000 acres of farmland. Andy Gipson, the state commissioner of agriculture and commerce, said that the state’s economy took a $500 million hit this year from crops that could not be planted.

Louie Miller, director of Sierra Club Mississippi, was the lone presenter speaking against the Yazoo Pumps project. Miller argued the Corps is falsely advertising the pumps’ benefits.

“I empathize with the people of the south Delta,” he said. “They deserve real solutions for reducing flood damages and not false hopes pinned on the Yazoo Backwater Pumps.”

Miller cited a Corps report saying the pumps would only provide relief to about a third of the affected area. He also cautioned that there are potentially negative downstream impacts.

“The Corps highlighted a very real risk for those downstream,” Miller said. “The agency found that flood stages would rise by a quarter of a foot in the flooded Yazoo River after the pumps are turned on. The Corps has not modeled this risk to Vicksburg and other downstream communities.”

Mississippi Valley Division Commander and MRC President Maj. Gen. Mark Toy told the public in attendance that the river commission — comprised of Corps officers, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration representative, as well as two engineers and a civilian — would convene after the event to discuss the presentations.

Some commission members, including civilian member Sam Angel, voiced their support for the Yazoo Pumps. Angel said it was the worst flood he had ever seen.

Later in the day, the Mississippi Senate Finance and Tourism committees began a two-day hearing to learn more about the damages from flooding and freshwater in the Gulf.

Jeffry Mitchell, a sixth generation farmer in Sharkey County, said the flood devastated his catfish production. In a normal year, his farm sells 150,000 pounds of fish a month. This year, it’s yielded just 60,000 pounds total.

“I don’t understand how you can stay in business with many years like this,” Finance chairman Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said to Mitchell.

“With two years like this, nobody would stay in business,” Mitchell responded. 

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Louis Guedon, a fifth generation farmer, speaks to the Mississippi Senate Finance and Tourism committees during a joint meeting at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Louis Guedon, a fifth generation farmer in Adams and Jefferson counties, farms below Vicksburg, meaning his land is unprotected by any levees. He said that using the Morganza Floodway would relieve some of the damages him and other southwest Mississippi farmers experience. Guedon highlighted the rising trend of significant inundation in recent years.

“My dad is 83 years old, still farming,” he said. “He’s seen several of the 100-year floods. He’s seen the highest flood (at the Vicksburg gauge) in recorded history. And he’s seen the longest-lasting flood in recorded history of the Mississippi River. He’s got a 10-year-old grandson that’s seen all that too. This thing’s changing.”

Read more Mississippi Today coverage of flooding in the Delta.