When it comes to the debate over whether a massive pumping project in the South Delta is both financially and environmentally responsible, people on both sides of the argument throw out numbers to make their case.
I tend to put more stock in the numbers provided by Delta Council, the Mississippi Levee Board and other pump proponents.
They say that rather than a $220 million boondoggle, as environmentalists and fiscal hawks claim the pumps would be, they are actually cost-effective many times over when compared to the payouts the government shoulders when farmers can’t put in a crop because their fields are under water, owners are flooded out of their homes, or roads and bridges are washed out.
Peter Nimrod, the chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board, is projecting that this year alone would have saved the government enough to pay for building the pumps, not even counting the nearly $400 million in avoidable losses that have occurred during the previous decade.
As for wetlands, the other major point of dispute, the environmentalists paint a false picture. They imply that most of the South Delta acreage that now floods during times of heavy rain or high water would be bone-dry if the pumps were in place. In fact, said Nimrod, if the pumps had been installed prior to this year’s massive flood, 350,000 acres — or about two-thirds of the current flooded total — would still be under water. It’s just that the flooding would be contained to farmland, sparing homes and roads.
Besides that, in an effort to appease the environmentalists before the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the project in 2008, the pump proponents agreed to convert 55,000 acres of farmland into bottomland hardwood trees — a number that would more than replace any wetland acres that were lost.
The clincher for me, though, is a number that has nothing to do with the cost-benefit analysis of the project, or with balancing the interests of farmers against those of duck hunters and outdoors enthusiasts.
It has to do with basic fairness.
Forty-one percent of the continental United States drains its rainwater and snowmelt through the Mississippi River or the tributaries that feed into it. Yet one part of the country — against its will — is being forced to bear the brunt of that water, even though the original promise was to spread it around.
The flood of 1927 produced a historic cataclysm that, in today’s dollars, would have been the equivalent of a $1 trillion natural disaster. In its wake, the U.S. government and the best civil engineering minds in the country came up with a plan that was designed to avoid a repeat and to equitably distribute the risk and the damage that comes from high-water events along the Mississippi River.
The plan was adjusted several times over the years to correct flaws in the original design or to work out compromises between states along the river, all of which wanted to keep as much of the floodwater as they could away from their borders.
The Yazoo Backwater Project was itself the product of one such compromise. In 1936, floodways were added to the Mississippi River and Tributaries program, including one at Eudora, Arkansas, that would have directed water away from Mississippi and toward Arkansas and Louisiana. Five years later, conceding to the objections of those two states, the floodway was axed but in its place was added the Yazoo Backwater Project, complete with levees, floodgates and pumps.
The plan for the Yazoo Backwater was designed to cover all the bases.
Levees would be constructed so that during flood times, a swollen Mississippi River would not back up into the Yazoo River and inundate the South Delta. If rainfall was heavy in the North Delta but the Mississippi River was below flood stage, the water draining southward could be released into the river through floodgates. If the Mississippi River was too high to open the floodgates, the pumps would kick in to lift the floodwater over the levees and into the Yazoo River, where it would soon join up with the Mississippi and continue its course toward the ultimate destination in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The plan had no holes in it. It was taking care of everyone up and down the chain,” said Nimrod.
What was proposed for Mississippi was the same as what had been planned for three other major backwater areas in other states. They got their pumps, the Yazoo Backwater did not.
This year’s flooding is compounded, of course, by a historically rainy winter and spring that produced the wettest year on record in 10 states. But the South Delta’s flooding has become a regular occurrence in large part because one of the main planks in the flood-control plan has been left off.
It might be wise for homeowners who have been flooded repeatedly to move to higher ground or to rebuild at higher elevations. It might be a good idea to raise the road beds, too. Maybe some marginal farmland should be put into trees.
But a deal is a deal.
The South Delta was told that it would get pumps so that it wouldn’t become the reservoir for other folks’ floodwater. The EPA chose to ignore that promise.
People may argue over whether that decision was economically and ecologically wise, but there’s no disputing that it was unfair.
The pumps should be built.