Mississippi’s Big Sunflower River flows 250 miles before it hits the Yazoo River, a major tributary of the Mississippi River. The area surrounding Big Sunflower is home to some of the richest wetlands in the U.S., as well as wildlife like the Louisiana black bear and endangered species like the pondberry plant and the sheepnose mussel.
But the river, those wetlands, and the surrounding ecosystem are in danger, according to conservation group American Rivers’ latest annual report. They named the Big Sunflower as the most endangered river in the nation.
This determination is primarily because of the Yazoo Backwater Area Pumping Plant—often called Yazoo Pumps—an Army Corps of Engineers project from 1941 that has recently resurfaced in Congress. Here’s how it would work: when floods swell the Mississippi, a floodgate is raised to keep water from backing into the Big Sunflower. But when that river floods, it soaks the 630,000-acre Yazoo Backwater region as well. The project, which would control water in Big Sunflower with a series of pumps, was marketed as a way to reduce backwater flooding, but it’s long been seen as an agricultural drainage project that would benefit the huge row-crop farms in the area instead.
It has been estimated that Yazoo Pumps would drain and damage up to 200,000 acres of wetlands, although the Army Corps reported it would affect 67,000 acres. In 2004, Sen. John McCain called the project “one of the worst projects ever conceived by Congress.” In 2008, the EPA under President George W. Bush vetoed it. Still, Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran pushed it for years, wanting to fund it with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money.
Cochran retired earlier this month. Before he did, however, he gave the project one final boost by inserting language into the Senate’s 2018 spending bill ordering the Army Corps to build Yazoo Pumps “immediately and without delay or administrative or judicial review.” The line was later scrapped.
The 2,350-mile Mississippi River watershed encompasses all or part of 31 states. What happens in it, on it, and along it has ripple effects throughout the U.S. For decades, governments and water managers have tried to control the constantly meandering waterway and keep it on its current course for flood control and navigation purposes.
That’s caused flooding to worsen, scientists say. Overall risk has gone up 20 percent,according to one recent study. A lot of the flooding is happening in Louisiana and Mississippi. For example: in March, heavy rainfall forced the Corps to open a floodway above New Orleans, an emergency relief valve it’s using with more regularity, theWashington Post reports: three times in the last seven years. The increase can be partially attributed to the effects of climate change like increased precipitation and more extreme weather events, but three-quarters of it stems from the human engineering of the Mississippi.
The river isn’t in the best health either; it becomes more polluted as it flows south. One of the biggest issues is nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agriculture operations in the Midwest, which end up in the Gulf of Mexico where it causes dead zones, or oxygen-depleted areas that lead to fish die-offs. Many of the wetlands in the Deep South, which are integral to the region’s economy and culture, are also at risk because of oil and gas pipeline construction, creeping seawater, and flooding from the Mississippi River and its tributaries. A new study shows that Louisiana is losing 45 square kilometers of wetlands year, which is more than one acre an hour. The state is rushing to redirect the Mississippi and rebuild wetlands, but that may not be enough to save it.
Yazoo Pumps is just one of many problems plaguing the Mississippi basin. But it’s one that environmental advocates and scientists worry may resurface under President Trump’s administration since EPA chief Scott Pruitt is attempting to roll back federal water rules and recently directed EPA regional offices to “cede their Clean Water Act determinations” to him. Until now, the Yazoo Pumps was considered a longshot, a decision made a decade ago. As we’ve seen with many longstanding clean air and water regulations, that may not matter. It could land in lawmakers’ hands—and in the courts—again soon.
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