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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Water Works up the Yazoo

Air Date: Week of January 4, 2008

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Kent Parrish, Director of the Yazoo Backwater Project for the Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, MS (Courtesy: Army Corps of Engineers)

Every year, melting snow spill over the levies that separate the Yazoo River from the mighty Mississippi, and floods farmland. The Army Corps of Engineers wants to install a controversial 250 million dollar pump system to drain the wetlands. John Meagher, former director of Wetlands for the EPA, and Kent Parrish, who heads the pump project for the Army Corps in Vicksburg, Mississippi explain the controversy to Living on Earth.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Every spring the plain between the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers in the northwestern corner of the State of Mississippi is inundated. And for more than 65 years the Army Corps of Engineers has been working on a solution to what they describe as a ‘flooding problem.’

Their latest plan was just released. It’s a pumping system to get water from the Yazoo back into the Mississippi—at a cost of over $250 million. But environmentalists, the EPA, and the Fish and Wildlife Service say most of this area should be left as wetland, and not pumped dry for farms.

Joining me to talk about the proposed water works along the Yazoo River is John Meagher. He oversaw the proposal as Director of the Wetlands Division at the EPA until he retired in 2005. Mr. Meagher, welcome to Living on Earth,

MEAGHER: Hi.

CURWOOD: Why do this? What’s the rationale to do this?

MEAGHER: Well there is flooding that occurs behind the levy system. The Corps put the levy in to keep the Mississippi River flow from backing up into this watershed during high flow seasons. And as a result, the rainfall that would flow down the watershed cannot work its way out to the tributaries in the Mississippi, so it backs up there. And the main purpose would be to improve the agricultural conditions in the watershed.

CURWOOD: Now the Army Corps say they’ve done a cost-benefit analysis and that for every buck they would spend on this project it would return $1.40. And they say that this improves the environment, I’m directly quoting their plan. How true is this? To what extent can this plan directly improve the environment?

MEAGHER: The plan does include a lot of environmental mitigation. However, it’s very uncertain mitigation, in that the Corps commits up to 56,000 acres of mitigation but it does not commit to achieving 56,000 acres of mitigation. And you have to look at the Corps record on mitigation. There were projects that were committed in this watershed 20-40 years ago, for which the mitigation has not yet been completed.


Kent Parrish, Director of the Yazoo Backwater Project for the Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, MS
(Courtesy: Army Corps of Engineers)

And then there’s always uncertainty associated with ecological restoration. Replicating the functions of hardwood forests is a challenge. These forests take a hundred years to reach maturity. So the project would impact 67 thousand acres of wetlands. So this is a massive wetland impact. Larger by far than any I saw in my 25 years in EPA’s wetland protection program.

CURWOOD: So, I’m a little puzzled by something here. This proposal has been around for a long, long time and heavily criticized for a long, long time. Why is it so persistent?

MEAGHER: This project is going to take a very long time, and has taken a very long time because it is so difficult for the Corps to demonstrate that it meets the standards of the Clean Water Act, and also that this is a sound investment of federal dollars.

The fully funded cost of the project is over $250 million dollars. And there is strong support for the project from the Mississippi congressional delegation. So it’s a combination of the fact that the Corps of Engineers has a predisposition to favor this approach, and the fact that there is support for such a project going forward, including from the Mississippi congressional delegation.

CURWOOD: Some people would label this legislation classic pork barrel politics. What’s your analysis?

MEAGHER: Well I think pork barrel politics is in the eye of the beholder. I think there is a problem in the watershed. It can be addressed and should be addressed, but I think that the way the Corps is approaching it has such enormous environmental damage associated with it that it behooves all of us to look for an alternative that won’t destroy the wetlands but will indeed provide the flood protection, particularly for the roads and the houses in the watershed, which could be done much more economically.

CURWOOD: So this is black bear habitat and as I understand it, this is where the story of the famous teddy bear comes from?

MEAGHER: That is correct. And Theodore Roosevelt the fourth, who is now general manager of Lehman Brothers, wrote a letter this summer, objecting to this project on environmental grounds and he retold the story that in 1902 the president went hunting in this impact area. And to facilitate the success of his hunting trip, some folks tied a black bear to a tree so he could shoot it, and he refused to, on the grounds of good hunting ethics. And the political commentators at the time picked up on this. It actually became the subject of many political cartoons. And that’s where the phrase ‘teddy bear’ originated, according to Teddy Roosevelt the fourth.

But, the Louisiana black bear was there then. It then disappeared because of all the environmental stresses over the years but it has now shown up again. And that’s so encouraging and so promising and we hope that a project can go forward that will indeed contribute to the restoration and improvement of conditions of the Louisiana black bear—not the project proposed by the Corps.

CURWOOD: So, one of your slogans is ‘don’t drown the teddy bear.’

MEAGHER: I think that’s one way of putting it. Or, maybe, since the Corps is trying to dry out the watershed—is ‘don’t leave the teddy bear high and dry.

CURWOOD: John Meagher is the former director of wetlands at the EPA. Thank you so much for taking this time.

MEAGHER: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

CURWOOD: Let’s turn now to someone who can speak to the slow progress of the project from personal experience.

PARRISH: Yes. This is Kent Parrish with the Vicksburg district, Army Corps of Engineers and I’ve been working on the Yazoo backwater project.

CURWOOD: For what—14 years now?

PARRISH: Some 14 years.

CURWOOD: That’s a long time.

PARRISH: Yes, it has been.

CURWOOD: So 14 years you’ve been working on this and still not a shovel or maybe a bulldozer in the ground.

PARRISH: No. That’s correct. I mean we’ve done a lot of studies. There’ve been a lot of questions asked and we have tried to look at that. We have had numerous workshops and meetings, where additional alternatives, both structural and nonstructural alternatives have been evaluated. You know, we think we’ve covered most of the bases as far as alternatives that could be presented. We’ve spent years trying to look at all the ranges of alternatives.

CURWOOD: If you went ahead and built this project—how many acres of wetlands would be lost?

PARRISH: The word ‘wetland loss’ is a misnomer here. So let’s say you’ve had a wetland that’s been flooded sixteen days during the growing season and now it’s going to be flooded only 13 days of the growing season. We consider that an impact under the rules of what defines a wetland for jurisdictional purposes by the Congress.

So, we are impacting some 26,300 acres of wetlands but we are not destroying them. We are not filling them with dirt and paving over them with concrete and building a parking lot or Walmart.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the pumps that are going to be installed there. I understand these are some really big machines.

PARRISH: Yes, these are some large pumps, but what are you going to do with the water that’s coming off of 41 states and two Canadian provinces that pass by Vicksburg, Mississippi? What do you do with all that water that’s coming from Pennsylvania, New York, Montana during the flood season of March-April-May every year flooding just agricultural land and farming land?

CURWOOD: What is the impact that you see on the wildlife there, in particular bears?

PARRISH: In particular the bear in informal consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—they’re saying the project will actually enhance the bear habitat up there by the reforestation of this 55,600 acres of land and by lowering the flood frequency you are going to actually help his habitat. All the terrestrial, waterfowl, aquatics, and wetlands all see an increase in functional values.

CURWOOD: Kent Parrish is the senior project manager for the Yazoo backwater project with the Army Corps of Engineers. Thank you so much.

PARRISH: Yes, anytime. I enjoyed visiting with you today.

CURWOOD: The public comment period for the Yazoo pumps closes on January 22nd. For more information, check out our website: www.loe.org.

 

Links

Army Corps Site on the Yazoo Backwater Project

Former EPA Wetlands Director John Meagher's Letter to the Editor in The New York Times about the Yazoo Pumps

 

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