Conservation groups file lawsuit over Yazoo Backwater Pumps Project

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WASHINGTON, D.C (WJTV) – The project of completing the Yazoo Backwater Pumps is now being played out in federal court.

A coalition of environmental conservations has filed a lawsuit in D.C against the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency for possibly rushing through this ignoring key laws.

Delta natives and pump advocates are not surprised by this move. The lawsuit was filed by EarthJustice, an environment advocacy law firm based out of San Francisco on behalf of Audubon Mississippi, The Sierra Club, Healthy Gulf, and American Rivers.

“The Yazoo Pumps have been sold by a lot of self-serving politicians and rich farmers,” Sierra Club Director Louie Miller told us.

Opposed to the last proposal back in 2008, environmental groups from Mississippi and across the nation have gathered over 50,000 signatures urging the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA to deny another attempt at Backwater Pumps.

“You’re going to change the hydrology of that area,” Miller argued. “So you’re going to have more crops planted that provide no use and you’re going to drain a lot of wetlands in the process.”

“The Yazoo Backwater Area is a key lynchpin to the Mississippi River Flyway and supports 60% of North America’s birds,” Mississippi Audubon Policy Director Jill Mastrototaro explained. “28 million birds migrate through the backwater area alone.”

In a letter back in November, the EPA noted to the Army Corps of Engineers their Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is not subject to the 2008 veto for a number of key features changing its location, fuel source, and when it turns on. For the plaintiffs, this isn’t good enough.

“They moved it eight miles up north to try to call it something different to get around the veto of the project,” Miller said. “It’s the same pump, it will discharge the same amount of water and it will operate under the same parameters prohibited by the veto.”

On maps pulled from the Vicksburg District Army Corps of Engineers reports before they conducted a new study, the Sierra Club points to 68% of the South Delta still flooding in 2019 reaching 92.3 ft. even if the pumps were in place. Farmers fighting for the pumps explain the math goes deeper.

“It keeps it out of the houses and off the roads plus out of the buildings and would have saved three lives in 2019,” Yazoo County Farmer Clay Adcock stated. “Would have not flooded for six months but maybe one month or two months.”

With their lawsuit, Audubon and the Sierra Club included alternatives to flood control cheaper than the pumps like elevating roads and properties. Even pointing to current USDA options to buyback cropland.

“These are programs that pay farmers voluntarily to replant their crops to wetlands,” Mastrototaro said. “So that they can continue to make a good living off their land but they actually get paid to take their farmland and restore it back to wetlands.”

For people like Clay Adcock there’s more damage and less facts leading to benefits in those cases.

“There are 250,000 acres of farmland in the backwater area that flooded, if you put the average price on that then it’s $1.5 billion,” Adcock argued. “And that cost-benefit ratio on that isn’t worth a crap. Then your tax base is destroyed.”

The current pump plan would cost roughly $400-$500 million. Some of which are already available to break ground. The case has yet to be assigned to a judge.

Today’s lawsuit delivers a clear, resounding message that EPA’s assault on the law, science, and the public’s voice will not be tolerated.  The case challenges EPA’s last-minute decision to exempt the Yazoo Pumps from a conclusive Clean Water Act veto that was issued in 2008 to protect some of our country’s most valuable natural resources.  EPA’s stunning reversal defies the explicit terms of the agency’s own veto, violates the Clean Water Act, and disregards core principles of administrative law that include ensuring due public process.

EPA has blinded itself to the facts on the ground, its own scientific and legal analyses, and the extensive record supporting the 2008 veto.  The current proposal is based on the same flawed methodologies that EPA decisively rejected in 2008, and would not deliver flood relief to communities by leaving 82% to 89% of flooded lands underwater.  The project will have devastating impacts to globally important wetlands, waters, and wildlife.

During the public comment period on the Corps’ 2020 proposal that concluded in November, more than 50,500 citizens, scientists, and public interest groups urged the Corps to abandon this ineffective, destructive project, and instead prioritize immediate, sustainable flood solutions to benefit local communities.  Ninety-four percent of the comments received by the Corps were against the Pumps and called for commonsense natural infrastructure and non-structural approaches available now to help protect people’s lives, property and livelihoods, such as elevating homes and roads, and paying farmers to restore cropland back to wetlands.

EPA’s decision has no basis in fact or reality, and signals that political motivations have trumped the agency’s sworn duties.  We look forward to holding EPA fully accountable for its unlawful actions, to ensure the public’s voice is heard, and to safeguard the environmental protections bestowed on this globally significant area.”

Joint Statement by American Rivers, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Healthy Gulf, and Earthjustice

On Monday, U.S. Senators Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers emphasized how they believe the pump project is crucial to the South Delta’s future. The Yazoo Backwater area experience historic flooding in 2019 and 2020.

In order for the pumps to be built, the plan must pass Congress. If the Army Corps gets the greenlight for the project, they can break ground on the pumps. The project could be completed in about four years.

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