JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Installing massive pumps to drain water from the south Mississippi Delta would be a way to fight environmental injustice because the pumps would help low-income and minority residents whose lives are disrupted by flooding, Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said on Capitol Hill.
It's a relatively new argument that Wicker and others are making in support of a federal project that has been lingering, unbuilt, since the 1940s. The proposed pumps would remove water trapped between Mississippi River and Yazoo River levees in an expanse of rural flatlands north of Vicksburg.
The Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the project in 2008 under one Republican president, and then rescinded the veto in 2020 under another one. Some environmental groups are suing to try to block it.
During a hearing of a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee on Thursday, Wicker said that because of flooding in the south Delta, people "lack the certainty they need to build homes and establish businesses.” He said that reinforces a cycle of poverty.
“The residents of the south Delta face one of the most glaring instances of environmental injustice anywhere in the nation,” Wicker said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in 2020 that the Yazoo Backwater area experienced significant flooding during nine of the 10 previous years. A 2019 flood covered more than 500,000 acres (202,343 hectares) and lasted several months.
Five environmental groups — Audubon Delta, Mississippi Sierra Club, American Rivers, Health Gulf and Earthjustice — issued a news release Thursday that repeated their longstanding criticism of the pump project and took exception with Wicker's statements.
“The Yazoo Pumps are not an environmental justice project because it will not protect underserved communities from flooding,” Louie Miller, the Sierra Club state director, said in the release. “By the Corps’ own admission, 80% of the project benefits go to agribusiness by draining wetlands to intensify farming.”
The proposed pumps have bipartisan support from Mississippi’s congressional delegation and from groups including Farm Bureau, the Delta Council and the Nature Conservancy of Mississippi.
A south Delta resident who supports the pump project spoke during the hearing Thursday.
Tracy Harden and her husband bought a Chuck's Dairy Bar restaurant in Rolling Fork in 2007. In response to questions from Wicker, she told the Senate subcommittee that floods would not be as high if the pumps were in place.
“Our farmers would be able to be in the fields working, which means they're able to employ some of the lower-income people,” Harden said. “If the farmers can't plant, then they can't hire.”
Harden grew up in the south Delta and said people sometimes say that residents there should just move away from areas that flood.
“This is our home. This has been our home for many years. We can't just up and move," Harden said. "And then, a lot of the lower income (people), how are they going to move? They're stuck.”
The Thursday news release from the environmental groups said that in 2020, more than 230 conservation groups, social justice organizations and scientific professionals, and more than 90,000 members of the public, urged the Corps of Engineers to abandon the pump project and instead to elevate homes and roads and pay farmers to convert croplands into wetlands.
Olivia Dorothy is Upper Mississippi River Basin director for American Rivers. She said in the news release that the pumps could push billions of gallons of water a day into the Yazoo River when it’s at flood stage, and that could hurt Black communities near Vicksburg.
“This massive amount of extra water could also breach the Yazoo Backwater Levee, flooding the very same communities that the pumps are supposed to protect,” Dorothy said.
Days before then-President Donald Trump left office in January, the Corps of Engineers published a final environmental impact statement saying the Yazoo pump project is “technically feasible, environmentally justified ... and in the public interest.”
Six months later, the project remains unfunded and enmeshed in court fights.