Threat: Wetland destruction

Near Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Big Sunflower River is home to a diverse abundance of wetlands, fish and wildlife. This special place is threatened by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project that would damage roughly 200,000 acres of nationally significant wetlands and cost taxpayers at least $300 million for construction, plus millions in annual maintenance costs. In 2008, President George W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the project under the Clean Water Act. Today, there is a push in Congress for the Army Corps to immediately construct the project. This action poses a major threat to the Big Sunflower River and waters across the nation protected by the Clean Water Act. Public outcry is needed to ensure that Congress does not force the construction of this expensive, destructive and unnecessary project.

Take action: Help us urge Congress to stop this disastrous project that would cost taxpayers more than $300 million and would drain and destroy an area roughly the size of all five New York City boroughs.

About The River

Children canoe the Big Sunflower River. | Photo: John Ruskey Quapaw Canoe Company

The Big Sunflower River begins in Coahoma County, Mississippi, and flows for 250 miles until it reaches the Yazoo River, a tributary of the Mississippi River. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the wetlands of the Big Sunflower are, “some of the richest wetland and aquatic resources in the nation,” and serve a vital function for fish, wildlife, anglers, paddlers and other water users. Thanks to the protection of vital wetland habitat around the Big Sunflower afforded by the Clean Water Act, the state-listed Louisiana black bear has thrived, allowing it to be removed from the federal endangered species list. The area is also home to the federally-endangered pondberry plant and sheepnose mussel, federally-threatened rabbitsfoot mussel, and the state-endangered mucket mussel.

While most of the land in the Big Sunflower River watershed is in agricultural production, nearly a quarter has been set aside, returned to native forest, protected as public land or enrolled in conservation easements. Despite farm conservation efforts, agricultural water withdrawals and pollution have had a major impact on the watershed since at least the 1970s.

The wetlands of the Big Sunflower serve a vital function for fish, wildlife, anglers, paddlers and artists. The Mississippi Delta has been a cultural muse, and, Clarksdale, near the headwaters of the Sunflower, has produced many famous musicians, including Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House and James “Super Chikan” Johnson.

The Threat

Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge at sunset. | Photo: Stephen Kirkpatrick

The Big Sunflower River is threatened by an effort to resurrect a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project. The Yazoo Backwater Area Pumping Plant (or Yazoo Pumps) was initially authorized in 1941 to theoretically help reduce backwater flooding between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers just north of Vicksburg, Mississippi. In reality, this is an agricultural drainage project that would benefit highly subsidized big agribusiness while increasing flood risk downstream and harming low income communities that depend on the area’s natural resources (i.e., subsistence fish and/or wildlife).

According to independent estimates, Yazoo Pumps would drain and damage up to 200,000 acres of ecologically-significant wetlands and a highly productive floodplain fishery. The project’s impact area includes more than 123,000 acres of one of the last bottomland hardwood forest ecosystems that once dominated the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, four National Wildlife Refuges, the Delta National Forest and State Wildlife Management Areas. The project would also impact nearly 184,000 acres of privately-owned forest land and 50,000 acres of lands enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve and Conservation Reserve Programs. Taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars conserving wetlands in this region. Draining them now to promote more intensive cultivation is nonsensical.

A raccoon takes a swim in the Big Sunflower River. | Photo: Stephen Kirkpatrick

In an era of climate change and more intense storms and flooding, instead of pushing more water downstream, we need to rely on the multiple benefits of healthy wetlands and floodplains to manage these events. This project is a major boondoggle propping up a handful of industrial farms at the cost of at least $300 million (plus an annual maintenance cost of around $2.1 million) in taxpayer dollars and irreplaceable wetlands and wildlife habitat.

The Yazoo Pumps are so damaging that the George W. Bush administration vetoed the project, using the Clean Water Act veto authority for only the 12th time in history. The veto was upheld in court. Unfortunately, Congress and the Trump administration’s aggressive anti-environment rhetoric threaten to revive this devastating project, throwing out the longstanding protections provided by the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Language directing the Army Corps to immediately begin constructing the Yazoo Pumps—regardless of the veto and without any additional environmental review— was included in a draft FY 2018 Senate appropriations bill. Though that language was not in the final FY2018 bill, some members of Congress and supporters within the administration are continuing to push for including it in future funding bills or other must-pass legislation.

What Must Be Done

Historically, EPA Clean Water Act vetoes have permanently blocked exceptionally destructive projects. However, some members of Congress and the Trump administration are actively working to dismantle long-standing environmental protections and the environmental legacies of past presidents. Congress must not sneak an approval for this project into a funding or other bill, or otherwise direct that the Yazoo Pumps proceed.

It is critical that the public speak out to defend this ecologically-significant place from destruction. It is also vitally important that the public demand that Congress defend the integrity of the Clean Water Act, including the vitally important Clean Water Act veto authority.