Dubious Days in the Delta

U.S. taxpayers may spend millions of dollars on projects in the Mississippi Delta that destroy natural resources while benefiting few people

02-01-1999 // Alan Huffman

From the 1930s to the early 1960s, my grandparents owned a wilderness retreat in the heart of the swampy Mississippi Delta, and each spring the rising Mississippi River turned the area into a vast, forested sea. When the wedge of muddy water backed up onto their land at Steele Bayou, my grandparents entertained themselves by watching deer, bobcats and other wildlife migrate toward the Indian mounds that remained dry. It was an annual ritual of "high water," as my grandparents called it, and it had been going on for thousands of years.

Although the water sometimes rose as much as 30 feet and stayed for weeks at a time, I never heard my grandparents use the word "flood," which would imply an unexpected, disastrous event. To them, the yearly high tide was simply part of the natural rhythm of life in the lower Delta.

It was in this lower Delta half a century ago that William Faulkner wrote about how one of the most prolific wilderness areas of North America was eventually cornered like a great bear, after decades of land clearing and development had transformed higher ground into an almost unbroken plain of row crops and towns. And it is here that the final battle over the Delta´s last wild remnants is now being waged.

Today, my grandparents´ land is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It sits at ground zero for a series of schemes designed by the Corps to drain and control flooding of the Delta once and for all. The two most notable projects: a $62-million plan to dredge and clear more than 100 miles of the Big Sunflower River in order to reduce flooding by only a few inches a year; and the construction of a mammoth, $150-million backwater pumping plant along Steele Bayou, which would transfer floodwaters from one section of the Delta to another.

While the Army Corps is pushing ahead with the dredging of the Big Sunflower, critics of both plans question whether U.S. taxpayers should have to pay for projects that will benefit only a small number of local landowners while destroying precious natural resources. As U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Curtis James told ABC News not long ago, "For the money spent and the small reduction in flooding, it´s not worth it." At stake are thousands of acres of some of the nation´s most productive wetlands and bottomland hardwood forests, including cypress trees more than 1,000 years old, and a languorous river that nurtures what biologists believe is the densest colony of freshwater mussels on the planet.

Lying between Memphis, Tennessee, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Mississippi Delta is not, technically, the delta of the Mississippi River, but of its tributary, the Yazoo, which joins a labyrinth of rivers, bayous and lakes to drain much of northern Mississippi. With a subtropical climate, fertile soils and annual overflows, the Delta was once prime real estate for fish and wildlife. But years ago agricultural interests made dramatic inroads into the remaining wilderness.

In 1963, my grandparents saw their home and beloved woods bulldozed by the Corps. Their property lay in the way of a system of levees, canals and the proposed Yazoo pumps, which were designed to "protect" the lower Delta from interior and backwater flooding. The levees would shut out the Mississippi River backwater, and the pumps would lift water from the interior Delta and discharge it into the Mississippi. The goal was to make more land available for agriculture, which meant getting the water out of the entire Delta for good.

The clearing of hundreds of thousands of acres of trees in the 1960s and 1970s--most of which were merely pushed into windrows and burned--was devastating to wildlife. The floods, meanwhile, persisted, and when the price of soybeans fell in the early 1980s, much of the new land created by the Army Corps was abandoned. Today, a wildlife-based economy is emerging in the lower Delta, with resorts offering hunting and fishing excursions as well as nonconsumptive recreational opportunities like hiking and bird-watching. Meanwhile, thousands of acres have been voluntarily reforested or enrolled in federal conservation programs. So why is the Corps proceeding with its plans?

"You have to go back to the earlier authorization," says the Army Corps´ Vicksburg District spokesman Michael Logue, referring to the early 1940s when Congress authorized the most ambitious flood-control program in U.S. history in the Mississippi Delta. The Yazoo pumps and Big Sunflower dredging projects are leftovers of that program; they are linked with upstream flood-control works that have since been completed. By not finishing the overall plan, observes Logue, "Essentially what you´re saying is the people upriver got theirs and these people [in the lower Delta] can´t have theirs."

Joe Allen Woodard, who farms about 750 acres near Holly Bluff, Mississippi, is one of those lower-Delta people, but he has a different take on things. He says the dredging of the Big Sunflower "will destroy valuable ecosystems in the river, it will cause more erosion of the river banks and is a waste of taxpayer dollars." Another local farmer, Jimmy Huff, who has enrolled almost half of his 2,000 acres in federal conservation and wetland reserve programs because they flooded frequently, is concerned that the dredging project "will actually increase both flooding and erosion in the area." Already, according to Army Corps figures, more than 200,000 acres of cleared land in the backwater area flood on average every five years, some as often as twice a year.

For Paul Hartfield, the Big Sunflower project represents a threat to mussel beds that are thousands of years old. A biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Mississippi, he notes that "the mussel beds in the Big Sunflower River represent probably the densest accumulation of biomass anywhere in the world." As much as 100 pounds of mussels can be found in a square meter of river bottom. "If we destroy them, we´ll be destroying the last bit of aquatic ecosystem stability in the Mississippi Delta," he says.

Hartfield notes that the Corps has altered its plans for the Big Sunflower as a result of negotiations over the past three or four years, but the dredging could still take out an estimated 40 percent of the mussel beds. And Tulane University geologist Barry Kohl worries that the project could also release DDT trapped in river sediments, causing more environmental damage downstream. The experts believe that the issue is not whether to have flood control, since some flood control is essential, but where to draw the line.

Last fall, the National Wildlife Federation determined that the line was violated when the Army Corps, in its plans to dredge the Big Sunflower, violated U.S. law. According to the federal Water Resources Development Act, proposed water projects must have only a negligible impact on wildlife and its habitat and their costs must be shared by local sponsors.

In the case of the Big Sunflower, the Corps maintains that its plans are exempt from this 1986 law because the project amounts to nothing more than "maintenance" on a portion of the river that was authorized for dredging by Congress in 1944. "The claim that this is maintenance appears to be an end run around federal law," says John Harvey, president of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate. The National Wildlife Federation filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government late last year to stop the project.

"It´s a senseless gouging of the taxpayer's pocketbook," says Gerald Barber, a Mississippi resident and voluntary chair of NWF´s Board of Directors.The Federation maintains that flooding problems can be addressed with less-expensive approaches, such as conservation easements that would give landowners incentives to reforest lands.

Such approaches could lessen the need for another controversial flood-control scheme, the Yazoo pump project. This ambitious plan involves building the world´s largest pumps, which would lift 10,000 cubic feet of water per second from Steele Bayou and the Big Sunflower into the Yazoo near its confluence with the Mississippi. The volume is equivalent to the average flow of the Delaware River, which would be added to the Mississippi´s flow during floods.

How many people will benefit from such an expensive project? The Army Corps cannot say for sure, but critics maintain that the number may be as low as a few dozen and that flooding will be reduced, but not eliminated, on their land.

While Congress was busy authorizing the Yazoo and Big Sunflower projects in the 1940s, my grandparents were blissfully ignorant of what lay ahead. Their Steele Bayou retreat was their idea of paradise, with its ancient forests festooned with Spanish moss, its wooden skiffs tied up among the cypress knees, even its mosquitoes, snakes and alligators. High water may have been an occasional adversity, but it seemed to ensure that the lower Delta would remain a wilderness long after most of the South´s forests had been overharvested or cleared for agriculture.

"Back in 1941, the mind-set of the U.S. government was that it never saw a wetland that couldn't be drained," said an editorial last summer in the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger. "Times change. There simply isn´t a prevailing government need anymore to drain land and provide more agricultural land." The state's largest daily newspaper went on to say: "When you add to this that the proposed project won´t solve flooding, but only reduce it....What´s the point?" That's a question taxpayers all across the country should be asking.

Mississippi writer Alan Huffman still occasionally visits the lower Delta, but because the Corps now owns his family´s land, he says, "There is really no going back."


NWF Takes Action: Protecting the Delta's Resources
As part of its ongoing efforts to protect the nation´s wetlands, the National Wildlife Federation, working with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ), has taken the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to court to stop the Big Sunflower River dredging project. (TLPJ is a national public-interest law firm.) NWF is also working to persuade the Corps to abandon its Yazoo backwater pumps project.

With its affiliate the Mississippi Wildlife Federation and other groups, NWF has also initiated an education effort to promote alternatives to the proposed federal flood-control plans. "Such commonsense alternatives as the purchase of flood easements are cheaper and cause less environmental damage than the projects planned by the Army Corps," says Susan Rieff, senior director of NWF's Gulf States Natural Resource Center. "They also yield more permanent flood-control benefits." 

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