MISSISSIPPI RIVER: 'Insanely fast' flood project races past Interior pushback

by Hannah Northey and Ariel Wittenberg

The Trump administration is moving at breakneck speed to sign off on a sprawling flood mitigation project in Mississippi that EPA originally vetoed in 2008 — a move that's drawing pushback from the Interior Department and conservation groups.

The Army Corps of Engineers finalized its supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Yazoo Pumps today along with responses to more than 53,000 comments, the bulk of which were in opposition to the project.

The final document comes just 11 days after a comment period closed on the Army Corps' draft EIS, leaving conservation groups to wonder how the agency could review all the public's input in that time.

The swift timing means the project could be approved as early as Jan. 14, the earliest date on which the Army Corps' record of decision can be legally signed. That means the project could be approved just in the nick of time before the inauguration.

"This is going insanely fast," said Olivia Dorothy, director of the upper Mississippi River Basin for the nonprofit American Rivers.

This is just the latest move by the Trump administration to expedite the project, with EPA recently informing the Army Corps that it wouldn't stand in the way of the project and that its original 2008 veto of the Yazoo Pumps no longer applied (Greenwire, Dec. 2).

While EPA has signed off on the new pump projects, Interior is pushing back.

In a letter to the Army Corps, Stephen Ricks, a field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Mississippi Field Office, said FWS "does not believe the currently formulated plan represents a balanced approach to addressing the flood damage reduction and environmental opportunities in the Yazoo Study Area."

Ricks in the 34-page letter outlined concerns with the Army Corps' handling of coordination and fast-tracked timeline, and said the Army Corps has been "procedurally remiss" in complying with the spirit of the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the 2003 Transfer Funding Agreement and engineering regulations that direct coordination to be undertaken at the onset of planning.

"The fish and wildlife resource planning goals must be addressed to at least a satisfactory level," wrote Ricks. "The Service looks forward to resolving our concerns in a timely manner to preclude a delay in flood protection."

Ricks in the letter outlined Fish and Wildlife's timing on getting involved in reviewing the revamped pump proposal and said a fast-tracked timeline of events threw off coordination.

He expressed concern about existing forested wetlands in the Yazoo study area that may lose protections under the Clean Water Act as a result of the pumping project, including forests that could be cleared for agriculture and other purposes should they become non-jurisdictional wetlands under federal law.

"The abbreviated timeframe has restricted the Service's ability to undertake a more thorough analysis and fully develop recommendations to reduce damages to fish and wildlife resources," Ricks wrote.

Reaction, next steps

A coalition of environmental groups including American Rivers, Audubon Mississippi, Healthy Gulf and the Mississippi Sierra Club in a joint statement accused the Army Corps of short-circuiting the public comment process to push a legally flawed proposal.

But proponents of the project, including Mississippi Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and some people living in the backwater area, say the project, something the federal government promised decades ago, will avert catastrophic flooding in the south Mississippi Delta.

"With the information provided in the Corps' Final Environmental Impact Statement, there is no justifiable reason to oppose the new Proposed Plan," the senator wrote in a statement. "After extensive review, the Corps has determined that it will reduce annual flood damages, and provide net gains in environmental value to the entire Yazoo Backwater Area."

Questions now center on whether the incoming Biden administration would reverse course on approving the Yazoo Pumps and just how much money the Army Corps has in its coffers to move forward with the project, now that it's nearing final approval.

Hyde-Smith serves on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Army Corps and noted in her statement that she worked to secure $1.5 million in fiscal 2020 appropriations legislation to fund the final supplemental environmental impact statement. But more funding would be needed for construction to begin.

Dorothy said the Army Corps simply needs funding once there's a record of decision but added the agency has indicated it doesn't have funding for the project at this point. She said she's hopeful the Biden administration would reverse these decisions.

The Army Corps didn't immediately respond when asked how much funding the agency has to begin building the pump station or what additional work must occur.

What's also unclear is whether Yazoo will usher in attempted reversals of other EPA vetoes. Dorothy pointed to West Virginia's Spruce No. 1 mountaintop removal coal mine that EPA vetoed in 2011.

"If [Yazoo] is allowed to proceed," she said, "the threshold has been set for what constitutes a new project in terms of an EPA veto."

Retired Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, who commanded the Army Corps' Mississippi Valley Division from 2008 to 2011 and was present when EPA issued its veto, said the Yazoo pump appears all but approved, adding that the record of decision — once issued — will be the final green light.

Walsh agreed attention turns to funding, and said it's possible an agency or the White House under the incoming Biden administration could block funding for the project.

"I don't know how it would not go forward, certainly someone could tell the corps not to fund that project," he said. "It would have to be someone from the executive branch."