Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

The Mighty Mississippi’s troubles, rural LGBTQ rights, & another oil spill

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.

The Old River Control Structure on the border of Louisiana and Mississippi. Credit: Michael Maples/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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. 

Stories worth your time

Two new reactors will be built at the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in Homestead, Florida by 2031. The plant is one of the eight U.S. power plants most vulnerable to flooding from sea level rise by the end of the century, according to a 2014 investigation. But in its application for the license, Florida Power & Light did not mention climate change and “used a 1-foot-per-century sea level rise projection in its calculation – far less than NOAA’s 5.6-foot worst-case scenario for 2100,” The Weather Channel reports.

The Battery Recycling Company Superfund Site, a 16-acre lead-smelting operation in Arecibo, Puerto Rico that shut down in 2014 because of toxic levels of heavy metals leaking around it, flooded during Hurricane Maria. Earther investigates how the city is rife with toxic sites that have taken a toll on public health. The risks are only worsening as extreme weather becomes more frequent.

Ten rail cars carrying 10 million pounds of biowaste, mostly human feces, are sitting in Parrish, Alabama after being moved around to various communities before heading to a landfill nearby. The waste is from facilities in New York and one in New Jersey; the companies that sent it said they would stop operations after multiple complaints. “You can’t sit out on your porch. Kids can’t go outside and play, and God help us if it gets hot and this material is still out here,” Parrish Mayor Heather Hall told CNN.

Mitchell Gold, the CEO of the $230 million furniture company Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, is one of Alexander County, North Carolina’s largest employers. He’s also one of the biggest voices for LGBTQ rights in the area. By telling the story of the small town of Taylorsville, the Washington Post explores how conservative regions are still debating gay rights and how the culture is shifting.

News flying under the radar

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed legislation that would have limited his authority to allow the state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon cap-and-trade plan.

The Coast Guard says a leak in a storage tank led to a 4,200 gallon crude oil spill in Bay Jacques in Louisiana this week.

By 2050, Southern Company will be “low to no-carbon,” says CEO Thomas Fanning, though he gave no exact details. Southern relied on coal for about 70 percent of its electricity in 2010; that’s now down to 38 percent, mostly because of cheap natural gas.

Mountain Valley Pipeline developers say they plan to extend the natural gas pipeline another 70 miles south into North Carolina. It’s a separate project that would require approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Almost 18 months after Hurricane Matthew, the communities in Wayne County, North Carolina are still struggling to recover. Many buildings have only recently opened again, and parts of the area still look like floodwaters just receded.