Peter Nimrod at Rotary

Peter Nimrod, left, chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board, speaks Tuesday with Greenwood Rotarians Larry Griggs, center, and Russell Robertson.

When the losses are tabulated from this year’s massive flooding in the South Delta, it’s going to cost more than three times what a long-stalled pumping station to mitigate the damage would have, says a Mississippi flood-control official.

“This one year alone is going to justify the whole project,” Peter Nimrod, chief engineer of the Greenville-based Mississippi Levee Board, said Tuesday at a joint meeting of the Greenwood Rotary and Exchange clubs.

Due to a year of unprecedented rainfall throughout a wide swath of the nation, more than a half-million acres remain under water, half of it farmland, from Vicksburg to Yazoo City.

The Mississippi River has been at flood stage for months and is not expected to drain significantly from the so-called Yazoo Backwater area until July at the earliest.

When the Mississippi River’s elevation gets too high, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closes the Steele Bayou floodgates, the only outlet for water flowing down to the South Delta from the northern part of the Delta and points farther north.

However, when the water in the South Delta can’t drain into the river, it backs up, inundating fields and homes and displacing wildlife.

A giant pumping station had been proposed to pump water from the backwater, over the levees and into the Mississippi River when the floodgate is closed, but the project was opposed by environmentalists and some members of Congress, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the $220 million project in 2008.

Nimrod and other pump proponents have been working ever since to try to get that decision either reversed or bypassed by Congress. The Trump administration has agreed to review the decade-old veto.

Following the historic flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, Congress the following year passed legislation that created the Mississippi River and Tributaries project, a comprehensive plan of levees, dams and other flood-control measures designed to reduce the risk within the lower Mississippi Valley.

According to Nimrod, the MRT project has been an unqualified financial success, preventing $1.2 trillion in losses while costing $15 billion since its inception 90 years ago.

One missing piece of the plan, though, has been the proposed pumping station at Steele Bayou near Vicksburg.

Nimrod said the omission has been an injustice to the farmers and residents of the South Delta. Within a 200-mile radius of Steele Bayou, it is the only pumping station of 23 proposed that has not built. He said an aerial view of the area today illustrates the huge inequity, with farmland on the Mississippi side of the river under several feet of water while farmland just to the west in Louisiana is dry and planted.

Farmers in the South Delta “are going to be hit worse than you can ever imagine,” said Nimrod.

When the pumping project in the late 1990s met opposition from environmentalists concerned about its impact on wetlands, Nimrod said,  proponents of the project made several concessions. They reduced the size of the pumping station by half and agreed to convert 55,000 acres of existing farmland into bottomland hardwood trees — the net effect of which would increase wetlands by nearly 20 percent with the pump in place.

“This is stupid that they vetoed this over wetlands. ... They’re killing a project that was going to help the wetlands,” Nimrod said of the EPA veto in 2008. “Environmental Protection Agency is wrong, wrong terminology. They’re not looking out for the environment.”

The South Delta has flooded regularly over the past decade, with this year’s flood the worst since the backwater levees were completed four decades ago.

Nimrod said that the pump’s proponents are hoping to capitalize on the publicity generated by the devastation to get the backwater pumping station authorized and funded, but he said it’s difficult to get the national media interested.

“The one thing we don’t get in Mississippi is attention,” he said. “We burn a church down, we’ll get all the attention we want. But we’re going to flood 550,000 acres and we’re going to flood 230,000 acres of farmland, that’s not very sexy.”

• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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