Mississippi residents flooded for four months say the EPA could save them but won't

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Conservationists say the Delta’s bottomland hardwood wetlands create one of the most important ecosystems in the country. Twenty percent of the nation’s ducks, 450 different species, including 257 species of birds, rely on these wetlands’ natural resources.

They could be devastated by the pumps, according to the EPA’s veto, which said that 67,000 acres of wetlands could be drained if the pumps were installed. The agency also commissioned a report prepared by Shabman during his tenure at Virginia Tech that concluded that even if the pumps could guarantee that the area would never flood again, the amount of money saved is “far below what would be necessary to … justify such a project.”

Many who have long followed the case say the pumps are a pipe dream

Now, after the veto, it would likely take an act of Congress to authorize the pumps that are expected to cost north of $300 million. That or the unlikely prospect of overturning an EPA veto, something that has never been done before and would likely lead to a lengthy court battle with environmental advocates.

Considering those requirements, many who have long followed the case say the pumps are a pipe dream

“There are layers of reasons why this is a bad project,” said Melissa Samet, senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, who has followed the project for decades, ”but worst of all is it really gives a false promise of hope to people who are suffering from flooding.”

Unexplored alternatives

Jack Branning, 87, has owned his 2,500 acres of land next to the Delta National Forest since 1996. He said there’s 5 to 10 feet of water on parts of his property now, but flooding has been a persistent problem for him since he started farming in the area.

The floodwaters have gotten exceptionally high 10 of the last 11 years, he noted.

Because of those rising waters, Branning entered his property into the Wetlands Preserve Program in 1999, which provides him compensation for the land that he can’t farm if he allows it to be reforested.

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“We did that because the program added value, in my opinion, to the land because the land had been cleared and being farmed unsuccessfully numerous years,” he said. “It may do okay for two years and then in two years the high water comes and it didn’t do very well. We farmed it for three years, I did, and it didn’t do very well.”

Branning said he’s happy that it’s helping the environment and noticed that some wildlife has returned, which is good for him as a hunter. Nevertheless, while Branning thinks he’s better off than his neighbors, he still supports the pumps.

The barn located on Stormy Deere’s property, located near Redwood, Mississippi, is surrounded by water due to the heavy flooding in the Mississippi Delta.Eric J. Shelton / Mississippi Today/Report For America

“I try to see everybody’s point of view,” he said. “It all depends I guess on how you view the world. In the case of the backwater, I view the pumps as something that should have been done.”

Buyouts, wetland reforestation and raised homes and roadways are ideas proposed by Shabman in another report that he produced for the EPA about potential alternatives. Environmental advocates, however, claim local leaders were never curious to explore such ideas because they didn’t come with expensive construction contracts benefitting a small number of people in Mississippi.

Because of the environmental and financial costs, Grumbles said that the EPA moved forward with the veto in 2008 to clear the way for federal agencies to explore new solutions.

“Alternative, nonstructural flood control measures and measures that didn’t involve the large pumps (which would drain so many wetlands) never got much traction so the only solution at the time was to use the veto pen and commit to work with the Corps, the levee board, and impacted communities in the future on a more acceptable project,” Grumbles said in his statement.

Still, nothing constructive happened in the decade that followed the veto. And because of the project’s expense, Shabman added, it is unlikely the pumps would ever have received funding anyway.

“The veto just made the thing end. No one picked up an alternative. No one said, ‘What else can we do?’” he said.

Shabman also thinks there’s little hope for the Trump administration to come up with an answer.