The promise of the Yazoo Pumps: Floods revive debate, but will project help communities that need it most?

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Photo by Rory Doyle

Backwater flooding surrounds a farm in the lower Mississippi Delta in June.

Editor’s note: This story was published by Southerly, which covers the environment and communities of the American South. 

Anderson Jones was born in a shotgun shack at the edge of a forest in Issaquena County, Mississippi. A wide-open expanse of farm fields and patches of swampy woods — which have produced multiple state-record gators — Issaquena is home to just 1,300 residents, making it the least populous county east of the Mississippi River. Jones, 59, lives on disability in a house his father built in 1965; he has ten acres of land and raises crops on five. Some years the farming brings in six hundred dollars, he told me when I visited in August. “That be Christmas money for us, you know?”

Jones likes to watch the land bloom. “You get a joy out there,” he said. “It’s just a good thing to see.” This summer, though, he watched as a historic flood spread across more than a half million acres in the Delta — larger than the island of Maui — creating a massive, stagnant pool thick with motor oil and sewage. Jones sent his family to higher ground, but he stayed, killing snakes, building a protective wall of sandbags, trying to save his house.

Along the nearby highways is locals’ rallying cry to address the chronic flooding, spray-painted on rooftops and septic tanks and fluttering bedsheets staked in ruined fields: #FinishThePumps. It’s a reference to a nearly 80 year-old flood control project proposal called the Yazoo Pumps that was killed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 due to its impacts on local wetlands. But, after this year’s devastation, the #FinishThePumps campaign has been revitalized. The EPA is currently reconsidering its decision to stop the project.

Flooding in Mississippi: In many parts of the state, water is at historic levels but solutions are elusive

Issaquena County sits at the bottom of the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest regions in America, and the pumps project is touted by politicians and residents as necessary for the economy and safety of residents. But its cost — likely more than $380 million for installation, plus millions more in maintenance — would likely fall on taxpayers. To critics, the pumps raise questions about major infrastructure projects billed as quick fixes, and the impact they have on low-income and minority communities and the environment.

For Jones, at least, the answer is clear, the need immediate. There’s a #FinishThePumps decal on his car’s rear window. “Right now, we should get those pumps,” he told me. “Everybody needs help.”

The Mississippi Delta, a 200-mile stretch of low-lying land between Memphis and Vicksburg, is a part of the Mississippi River’s vast floodplain. Winding creeks and bayous drain into the Yazoo River, which runs along the Delta’s southeastern edge and empties into the Mississippi in Vicksburg. The land in the south Delta was first opened to white settlers in 1820, and the treaty with the Choctaw Indians guaranteed that the tribal borders it drew “shall remain without alteration.” But a new treaty appeared ten years later, opening up more Choctaw land to development of plantations.

By 1860, Issaquena County had more than 7,000 enslaved black residents, compared to 587 whites — the highest rate in the South, and, since slaves were counted as property, the county was the second richest per capita in the U.S. During the 19th century, when the meandering Mississippi River flooded, water inundated the land and ruined farmers’ yields — so slaves were forced to build levees.

In 1879, the federal government took oversight of flood control. For decades after, black laborers lived in squalid, violent camps, working long hours for almost no money to build levees to stop flooding. In the early 20th century, a white camp boss proudly proclaimed they “created a billion dollars worth of land and property.” The northern half of the Delta — where the town of Clarksdale became known as the “Golden Buckle of the Cotton Belt” — was prosperous, but the southern Delta, including Issaquena, didn’t fare as well. When the Mississippi rose, it pushed water up the mouth of the Yazoo, causing backwater floods. Decades into the twentieth century, only 20% of the backwater area had been cleared.

After a devastating flood submerged much of the South in 1927, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to re-engineer the Mississippi, building more than 3,700 miles of levees and four floodways that divert water to hold the river to a precise and regulated course. In 1941, as a part of this process, Congress authorized the Corps to build the “Yazoo Backwater Project,” which aimed to reduce backwater flooding in the south Delta. But the project was delayed, simplified, and revived over the next three decades, largely because of high costs and a backlog of projects at the agency.

One component of the project, a levee built in the 1970s, was built along the western bank of the Yazoo River to wall in the Delta and stop backwater floods. But it turns the region into what many locals call a bathtub, filling when it rains. A set of gates were built on Steele Bayou, in southern Issaquena County, to drain to the tub; when the Mississippi River is low enough, the Army Corps opens them so water flows out. The unbuilt pumps would kick in when the gates closed, taking 100,000 gallons of water off the Delta every second and pouring them back into the Yazoo.

 

Construction on the pumps themselves began in 1986 — more than 40 years after the plan originated — but months later, a federal law passed, requiring local dollars fund a quarter of flood-control projects. The law was carefully written so that the Yazoo Pumps — which were scorned by environmentalists as destructive to wetlands and by fiscal conservatives as a bailout for a few rich farmers — would be bound by the new rule. There wasn’t enough money in the Delta, so construction ground to a halt.

This year’s historic flood actually began last year, with a rainy autumn. By September, soybeans had gone moldy. Fields were wet and hard to harvest. The 12 months from July 2018 to June 2019 were the wettest ever recorded across the U.S. As rain filled the Mississippi in February, the Army Corps was forced to close the gates to drain the Delta. The river held at flood stage for a record length of time: 162 days at Vicksburg. Throughout the spring and summer, the Army Corps re-opened the Steele Bayou gates whenever the Mississippi dropped to the allowable stage. But that wasn’t enough to prevent backwater flooding.

The water in the south Delta crested this year at 98.2 feet above sea level — nearly two feet higher than the previous record, according to the Mississippi Levee Board, which maintains levees in the state. Between 1973 and 2018, the Levee Board counted 45 days when the water stood above 95 feet; in 2019, that happened 144 days in a row. Peter Nimrod, the board’s chief engineer, indicated that the flood stretched 40 miles north from Steele Bayou, spanning 28 miles at its widest, covering parts of six counties.

Two people died. A man and a pregnant woman turned the wrong way while driving on a highway and their car slipped into the water, where they both drowned. Nearly 550,000 acres flooded, and hundreds of homes were surrounded by floodwaters. In Issaquena County, Anderson Jones lost his battle on May 19, at 2 a.m., when he woke to find the water pouring in through his sewage lines. He cut the power and fled. “We didn’t get a chance to save nothing,” he told me.

Photo by Rory Doyle

Anderson Jones poses for a portrait in Onward, Mississippi in July. Jones and many others in the Mississippi Delta backwater area face chronic and worsening flooding.

The flooded area included 230,000 acres of farmland, a devastating loss for a region where agriculture is the backbone of the economy. Farmers in the backwater were unable to plant at all. Nimrod, of the Levee Board, said that since 2008, there has been $372 million in damage in the backwater area due to flooding, and estimates that after this year, that sum could double. Those numbers do not include other economic consequences, like stores and restaurants that closed and farmhands and laborers who went without paychecks.

The water finally began to drop in late July, and as residents returned, they found dead fish in treetops and the skeletal remains of drowned raccoons and deer. Some locals, bitter about the lack of national media coverage, call it the “Forgotten Flood.”

Ray Mosby, the publisher of The Deer Creek Pilot, a local newspaper in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, told me that over the past 80 years, the pumps have taken on mythic status: he said that people believe that “if the pumps come in, suddenly the South Delta [is] going to be Xanadu.” Mosby, who investigated the project for the Deer Creek Pilot in 2003, said some of his neighbors now believe that he and his newspaper are against the pumps.

“No,” he said when I visited his office this summer. “We’re against lying to get the pumps.”

Opponents, including environmental groups and lawmakers, have long declared the pumps a false promise. The Levee Board concedes that even with the pumps in place, 350,000 acres would have been underwater this year, including over 100,000 acres of farmland.

“That’s not a hell of a lot of bang for the buck,” says Louie Miller, director of the Sierra Club Mississippi. The pumps would damage 67,000 acres of wetland habitat, according to the EPA’s calculations. By the time the EPA vetoed the project in 2008, it had received 48,000 public comments, with more than 99% against the project, including a majority of Mississippians. But within the Delta, the comments were nearly universally in favor.

The Army Corps, the Mississippi Levee Board, and the Delta Council, a region-wide lobbying group that advocates for local “planters,” as large-scale local farmers are known, are the pumps’ most ardent supporters. Official Army Corps documents indicate that, based on the agency’s calculations, the pumps would have held the water to 92.3 feet this year. (The Army Corps did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the pumps.) According to the Mississippi Levee Board, that would have ensured no homes were flooded and no highways overtopped. But the Army Corps’s surveys from the 2000s indicate that at least 91 residences and more than 400 miles of roads would be impacted by a flood at that stage.

The pumps were initially framed as an agricultural project. In the same Army Corps report, it’s estimated that 80% of the economic benefits of the project would go to farmers, and because the requirement for lost cost-share has been waived, those benefits would be financed by federal dollars.

Over the past two decades, though, state and regional lobbying groups have focused much of their messaging on the residents in the region who face chronic flooding, including low-income black residents. Mosby’s investigation concluded that politicians were inflating the numbers of homes that frequently flooded.

James Cobb, an academic who researches the region’s economic history, said that since plantations were first built in the Delta in the late 19th century, landowners have found ways to turn federal assistance to their own advantage, like working to secure public funding for levee building and drainage. “This strikes me as being pretty much in that same pattern,” Cobb said of the pumps.

The Delta Council has argued that the pumps are necessary to help poor, black residents. “Where’s their concern been all along? It’s not as though they couldn’t have been involved in efforts to help [black residents],” Cobb said, noting the Delta Council’s resistance to the War on Poverty in the 1960s. “Their concern would appear to be very selective to me.”

Frank Howell, executive director of the Delta Council, said that this was “new history” to him, indicating that the group had long supported improved educational outcomes for the region’s black residents.

This year’s flooding was not limited to the backwater region, and there are many devastated, low-lying areas in the Delta that will not be helped by the project. Mayersville, the county seat of Issaquena, is 90% black; more than 40% of residents live in poverty. Each year, parts of town are covered by water that presses through the levee when the Mississippi River rises, but it usually disappears quickly. This year it stayed for nine months, Otis Parker, a 77-year-old farmer who lives in Mayersville, told me. “[The pumps] ain’t going to help,” he said. His land is too far away. Holmes County, just to the northeast of the backwater area, is the poorest county in the state. In the town of Tchula, where almost all residents are black and 60% live in poverty, residents reported that at least 21 homes flooded after a big storm in February. They wouldn’t benefit from the pumps, either.

But locals who have expressed skepticism about the project have been alienated or criticized. After a local businessman argued against the pumps to federal officials, locals boycotted his wife’s restaurant; by April, it was closed. That same month Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat who represents most of the Delta in Congress, expressed support for the project at a public meeting, but said buyouts and updated building codes might be necessary. He was upbraided in a local newspaper for his “lukewarm” support.

The state’s Republican senators continue to push the project forward. “[T]he United States Congress made the people of Mississippi a promise,” Sen. Roger Wicker said in a recent statement. “But the promise still has not been kept for Mississippi, leaving the Delta vulnerable. This situation should not continue. It is time to finish the pumps.”

In the years since the 1941 promise, the population in Issaquena and Sharkey counties — which make up the bulk of the backwater area — have plummeted by more than 70 percent. The backwater area in Mississippi has flooded in nine of the last 11 years, and this year’s was classified as a 25-year event; heavy rainfall is becoming more common in parts of the Southeast as global temperatures rise. One thing both sides agree on is that such a flood is almost certain to recur.

“If you’re looking at this from a social justice standpoint, [the best approach] is getting money down on the ground, to the people,” Miller, of the Sierra Club said: buy out residents who live in the floodplain, or help them elevate their homes. This funding would typically come from FEMA grants that homeowners in the backwater area are eligible for, but must apply through their county emergency management association. A spokesperson from the Mississippi association said that counties have submitted applications, which are being reviewed, but could not identify which ones applied.

In April, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, who was a coal industry lobbyist before being appointed by President Trump, told a Senate committee that the agency was looking at reversing the 2008 veto of the pumps. The EPA has been meeting with the Army Corps over the past few months, an EPA spokesperson said, seeking a way to stop flooding while still abiding by the Clean Water Act. In late July, Mississippi senators introduced legislation that would overturn the veto and cut the EPA’s authority over the Army Corps.

Photo by Army Corps of Engineers

A flood control structure along the Yazoo River in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Even if the Yazoo Pumps are revived, it could be decades before work begins again; there is currently a nearly $100 billion backlog in Army Corps infrastructure projects. People on both sides of the argument said they figure the pumps, in the end, might never be built.

When I visited Anderson Jones, the landowner who had to leave his family’s home during this year’s flood, he pointed to a pin oak in his front yard. He planted it fifty years ago, he said, and now it shades the entire yard, a marker of his time there. “I done been through something, I’m going to tell you,” he said in late August.

The house was ringed with a low, dark line, a mark from the floodwaters; inside, the place had been gutted. The skeletal beams were scarred with mold. Jones said that he had reached out to a local foundation for financial help in restoring the house, and had been told to be patient: they were working through their list. When President Trump made the affected area eligible for individual assistance from FEMA weeks later, Jones applied for that, too.

“You got to do what you can do until they do decide they going to come and help,” he said. Don’t hold your breath for promises, in other words. He had a crew at work already, and as we talked, men were carrying out ruined wood and furniture, throwing it in a pile. The fields around the house were brown and barren, pockmarked with the occasional weeds, and when the crew lit the fire, black smoke drifted up and across the empty land.

Boyce Upholt is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. He was the recipient of the 2019 James Beard Foundation Media Award in investigative journalism.