The late U.S. Sen. John McCain called it “one of the worst projects ever conceived by Congress.” A former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official said that in 24 years with the agency he’d “never reviewed a proposal that would do more damage to the environment.” And in 2008, the EPA vetoed the Yazoo Pumps project in the Mississippi Delta, stating that it would have “unacceptable adverse effects on fishery areas and wildlife.” 

But now the EPA says its veto no longer applies to a modified plan for the long-debated flood-control structure, even though environmentalists maintain that the project remains little changed and will still damage wetlands that provide indispensable habitat for migratory birds. The agency’s decision removes a major hurdle for the long-debated pumps, creating a potential path for the Trump administration to permit the project just days before its term is over. 

The pumps are designed to force water out of the 926,000-acre Yazoo backwater area near the confluence of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers, low ground hit by repeated and persistent flooding. Supporters say the project will bring relief to local farmers and other flood-weary residents. 

Critics counter that the government’s own analysis shows the project will have modest flood-control benefits but will do significant damage to bottomland hardwood forests and other wetlands in the backwater area that naturally depend on periodic flooding. To avoid that harm, the EPA under George W. Bush used its Clean Water Act authority to veto the pumps. Mississippi’s political leaders have pushed hard for the project, however, and last year EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency would reconsider the veto. 

In October, the Army Corps issued a new draft environmental impact statement that called for moving the pumps 8 miles upstream from the vetoed site and said that new data and research indicate that the impact on wetlands won’t be as severe. And then, last week, the EPA’s regional administrator wrote to the Army Corps to say that, given the new location and other modifications, the veto no longer applied to the pumps. 

As opponents see it, though, the modified pumps plan is fundamentally the same project the EPA rejected in 2008. The unprecedented action of saying a veto no longer applies to a project sets a dangerous example whereby developers can make surface tweaks to a plan to skirt EPA authority, they say. “When you peel back the layers—and you don’t have to go very far—there’s no science,” says Jill Mastrototaro, policy director for Audubon Mississippi. “It’s so technically unsound. You wonder where this logic is coming from. And it’s unfortunately all driven, at the end of the day, by money and politics.”

Prothonotary Warblers rely heavily on the Yazoo Backwater Area during spring migration. Gary Robinette/Audubon Photography Awards

The Army Corps’ draft environmental impact statement—which critics say underestimates the pumps’ ecological harm—finds that even the modified project will “decrease wetland functions” on 38,774 acres. That’s significant because the 2008 veto found unacceptable multiple project options that would potentially impact more than 28,400 acres of wetlands; damaging nearly 39,000 acres far surpasses that threshold, so conservationists say the veto clearly should still apply.

Such wetland habitat loss is a serious problem for the 257 avian species that the Yazoo Backwater Area supports. More than 10 million birds use the area during spring migration, and that number swells to more than 18 million migrants in the fall, according to an analysis by Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative. The backwater area is a critical stopover site for Pectoral Sandpipers, Audubon’s analysis found: Nearly half a million of the shorebirds—about 30 percent of the entire population—stop there during one week at the peak of their arduous fall migration from the Arctic to South America. It also provides winter habitat for more than 6.3 million waterfowl, including more than 600,000 Greater White-fronted Geese—nearly 18 percent of the global population—and, at 5 million individuals, close to one-third of all Snow Geese.

Making matters worse, opponents say, the pumps project isn’t much of a fix to the flooding problem. Citing Army Corps data, conservation groups say that, even with the pumps installed, 82 percent to 89 percent of flooded lands would remain underwater. They say the money for the project, estimated at more than $400 million, would be better spent on buying out residents who are willing to relocate, paying farmers to return their fields to wetlands, and raising roads and buildings where needed, but the Army Corps didn’t consider those alternatives in its draft environmental impact statement.

“It’s extremely frustrating because what the Corps has put together is not defensible,” says Olivia Dorothy, Upper Mississippi River Basin director for American Rivers. “They’re just wasting resources when they could be putting that money into figuring out how to deploy actual solutions to the flood-risk challenges in that area that would be more effective.”

With the EPA’s veto out of its way, the Army Corps could give the pumps project final approval before the end of the Trump administration. At that point, environmental groups are likely to sue. They’re also likely to call on the Biden administration to block the project, urge Congress not to fund it, and do anything else they can to finally put the Yazoo Pumps to rest.

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