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Backwater Flooding Brings Long-Term Issues To Delta

By Kevin Edwards

Peter Nimrod, chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board in Greenville, recently told members of the Rotary Club of Cleveland that the lower Delta has suffered greatly this year.

“Not one acre is going to be planted down there,” Nimrod said “The government is going to have to step in and help the farmers, but that doesn’t help the seasonal worker that’s not going to have a job this year. That’s not going to help the guy at the parts house who sells parts for tractors that aren’t running this year. Not going to help the fuel guy that sells fuel that they’re not buying down there.

“The trickle-down effect is horrible,” Nimrod said. “It took 10 years to justify the (Yazoo Backwater Project) the first time, it’s probably going to take one year to justify (the project now).”

Nimrod and several others have been pushing for the construction of the Yazoo Backwater Pump, a project authorized to be completed with the Flood Control Act of 1941 but has yet to be constructed due to several bureaucratic issues and debates.

The pump would be designed to pump excess water into the Yazoo River and would take four years to complete.

Mississippi has seen historic levels of flooding in the south Delta, which has driven more alarm for the project to be authorized.

Nimrod said that September, October, November, February, March, April, and June have seen record-levels of river height for those respective months.

The Steele Bayou Control Structure is designed to prevent the Mississippi River from backing up water into the Yazoo River, but it prevents water in the basin from draining into the Mississippi River.

“Backwater flooding is rainfall that occurs right here in Cleveland, in Greenville, in Clarksdale and adds to the problem down south. Our problem is not the Mississippi River,” said Nimrod.

The Yazoo Backwater Project hit many snags due to debates between those in favor of building the major pumps and those who wanted to balance the size and scope of the project in favor of protecting the environment.

After years of negotiations, the proposed pump eventually was scaled down to 14,000 cubic feet per second to be turned on when the elevation of the river is at 87 feet.

“It was a no-brainer,” Nimrod said. “In 2007, the Corps (of Engineers) released the final report. We’re thinking, oh my god, this is going to be a slam-dunk. There are no losses anywhere. No one is going to complain about this project. If anybody complains about it, it’s going to be the people saying, I want more protection, pump’s not big enough, turn the pump on earlier.”

However, he said the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 vetoed the project using authority granted to it through the Clean Water Act, citing concerns over wetland degradation.

“In the meantime, since 2008, we had multiple backwater floods,” Nimrod said. “Had we had the pumps in place, we would have prevented $372 million worth of damage on a project that in 2007 cost $220 million.”

Funding for the bill was almost passed through a bill in Congress in early 2018 but the language was scrapped shortly before the bill was signed, leaving no funding for the project.

“It has gone on and on and on, it’s still going on, it’s been going on for four months,” Nimrod said. “It’s got at least another month or two before all this water gets out of here.”

The backwater floods have peaked so far at 98.2 feet above sea level, flooding over 550,000 acres including 230,000 acres of farmland.

“If you see water against Highway 61, you can bet that five miles east of you or five miles west of you, it’s going to be six-feet, 10-feet deep.”

Nimrod said further studies by the Army Corps of Engineers have shown that wetlands are not sustained by annual backwater flooding, but by annual precipitation.

Nimrod said the studies are being analyzed by the EPA and it can overturn the 2008 veto, but the process could take a year-and-a-half.

Mississippi’s congressional delegation, including Rep. Bennie Thompson, Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith have worked hard to bring attention to the Mississippi flooding issues in Congress. Gov. Phil Bryant has also lobbied hard in Washington for the same reason.

“It is hard to get the national media to come to the Mississippi south Delta,” Nimrod said. “Here we are, 550,000 acres under water, 230,000 acres of (agricultural) land that’s not going to plant this year at all, and that doesn’t even draw the national spotlight.

“It’s going to take months to get all of that water out of there. Even with (Steel Bayou) fully opened, but at least there is relief in sight.”

The river has dropped to a level safe enough for the Steele Bayou Control Structure to be opened to drain the backwater, but the damage has been done.