Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) restored its long-standing Clean Water Act veto of a massive agricultural drainage project in the Mississippi Delta known as the Yazoo Pumps. EPA’s decision immediately reinstates Clean Water Act protections for some of the nation’s richest wetlands and waters, which provide habitat for over 28 million migrating birds each year. EPA also withdrew the Trump administration’s last-minute attempt to unlawfully revoke the veto, which would have allowed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to circumvent the law and revive the same destructive pumps project. EPA reaffirmed its support for advancing effective, enduring flood solutions for communities in the Yazoo Backwater Area.
In January, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of American Rivers, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and Healthy Gulf, challenging the Trump administration’s attempt to exempt the Yazoo Pumps from the 2008 veto. EPA had never before revoked a veto, and the conservation organizations contended that the 2008 veto squarely prohibits the Corps’ rushed 2020 plan to revive the project. Recent media reports have documented how Trump EPA political leadership deliberately ignored career staff scientists’ concerns when revoking the veto last year.
“EPA’s decision is a powerful affirmation that science and law, not politics, ultimately prevail,” said Stu Gillespie, Earthjustice attorney. “EPA’s decision upholds bedrock environmental laws and restores crucial safeguards for some of the Nation’s richest wetlands.”
Although vetoed during the George W. Bush administration due to its unacceptable environmental impacts, the ineffective $440 million-dollar Pumps continue to be touted as the only solution to address flooding problems in vulnerable communities of the Yazoo Backwater Area.
“The Corps’ stunning admission that 83% of the Yazoo backwater would still be under water even with the Pumps during the 2019 flood says it all,” said Louie Miller, state director for the Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club. “The Pumps are not designed to protect communities from flooding but benefit agribusiness. Federal focus needs to be getting money on the ground to the people who need it the most.”
Right now, there are alternative flood solutions available through existing federal programs to help Yazoo Backwater communities effectively and sustainably reduce flood risks and benefit wildlife.
“EPA’s actions demonstrate a true commitment to birds and people,” said Jill Mastrototaro, Mississippi policy director for Audubon Delta. “Not only is this ecologically important area protected for future generations but vulnerable communities can finally get the flood relief they have long deserved.”
Instead of the ineffective, antiquated Pumps, the conservation groups have developed and shared with EPA and the Corps a Resilience Alternative, which identifies existing federal programs that would use natural infrastructure and non-structural solutions to provide prompt flood relief for local communities while benefitting wildlife.
“Communities throughout the Mississippi River basin are already putting commonsense flood measures, such as elevating homes and paying farmers to restore cropland back to wetlands, to good use,” said Olivia Dorothy, certified Floodplain manager and restoration director for American Rivers. “Federal programs and significant funding are available now to provide these same protections for people’s lives, property, and livelihoods in the Yazoo backwater area.”
In April, the conservation organizations filed as second federal lawsuit challenging the Corps’ reckless approval of the project in the final days of the Trump administration.
“EPA’s unequivocal reaffirmation of the veto underscores a shocking lack of restraint by the Corps,” said Andrew Whitehurst, water program director for Healthy Gulf. “Our organizations will continue to hold the Corps accountable in their attempt to sidestep federal laws by refusing to consider any other alternatives except an outdated project that they themselves acknowledge will leave most local communities vulnerable.”