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Environmental groups sue to stop Yazoo Backwater Pumps



Eagle Lake Shore Road before and after the 2019 flooding.
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A coalition of environmental groups has filed a lawsuit challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to support building the pumps in the Yazoo Backwater.

Earthjustice filed the suit on behalf of American Rivers, the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and Healthy Gulf.

“Today’s lawsuit delivers a clear, resounding message that EPA’s assault on the law, science, and the public’s voice will not be tolerated,” the coalition stated in a joint news release. “The case challenges EPA’s last-minute decision to exempt the Yazoo Pumps from a conclusive Clean Water Act veto that was issued in 2008 to protect some of our country’s most valuable natural resources. EPA’s stunning reversal defies the explicit terms of the agency’s own veto, violates the Clean Water Act, and disregards core principles of administrative law that include ensuring due public process.

“EPA has blinded itself to the facts on the ground, its own scientific and legal analyses, and the extensive record supporting the 2008 veto. The current proposal is based on the same flawed methodologies that EPA decisively rejected in 2008 and would not deliver flood relief to communities by leaving 82% to 89% of flooded lands underwater. The project will have devastating impacts to globally important wetlands, waters, and wildlife.

“During the public comment period on the Corps’ 2020 proposal that concluded in November, more than 50,500 citizens, scientists, and public interest groups urged the Corps to abandon this ineffective, destructive project and instead prioritize immediate, sustainable flood solutions to benefit local communities. Ninety-four percent of the comments received by the Corps were against the Pumps and called for commonsense natural infrastructure and non-structural approaches available now to help protect people’s lives, property and livelihoods, such as elevating homes and roads, and paying farmers to restore cropland back to wetlands.

“EPA’s decision has no basis in fact or reality and signals that political motivations have trumped the agency’s sworn duties. We look forward to holding EPA fully accountable for its unlawful actions, to ensure the public’s voice is heard, and to safeguard the environmental protections bestowed on this globally significant area.”

In 2008, the EPA vetoed the final piece of a decades old project to alleviate flooding in the south Delta. The project included a system of levees and channels to funnel flood water out of the Delta when river levels are high. The final piece of the project the pumps to move water into the rivers, was never completed. As a result, when high rainfall amounts occur at the same time as high river levels, the area traps floodwaters in the south Delta.

Because of record flooding in the region in 2019 and 2020, this past year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers undertook a new survey to gauge the environmental impact of finishing the project. Their recommendations include moving the pumps about 8 miles from the originally planned site at the Steele Bayou to Deer Creek.

Monday, the EPA announced its support for the USACE plan, saying because of the move and other details, “the proposed project is not subject to EPA’s 2008 Final Determination.” The agency’s support opens the door to completing the project.

Read the EPA’s letter to the USACE here.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said the EPA had revoked its 2008 decision. The EPA did not revoke its decision, but said the new proposal was not subject to that decision.

See a typo? Report it here.