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Misrepresentation on the Mississippi

Would this federal project really help most people in this part of Mississippi?

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Shrouded in doubt

In May 2023, the Biden administration announced its intent to resume a controversial flood mitigation project that has been more or less stalled for the past 80 years. The Yazoo Pumps project, first authorized by Congress back in 1941, would reduce the flooding of the Yazoo Backwater, a sparsely populated area in the Mississippi Delta with low-lying farmland that is vulnerable to frequent flooding.

Some estimate that the Yazoo Pumps would take a federal investment of well over $1 billion — a pivotal flow of money into a region where poverty rates are more than three times the national average. But with analyses suggesting that the pumps would disproportionately benefit a small minority of white landowners in the area, could the investment actually exacerbate inequities in the Delta?

In this edition:

  • History and legacies of the Yazoo Backwater
  • Purported benefits
  • And considerable doubts
  • Federal spending’s crucial role

The concerns surrounding the Yazoo Pumps project are historied and layered. To get a better understanding of these issues, I consulted my colleague, Nick Schwellenbach, Senior Investigator at POGO, who wrote our recently released investigation into the project.

Understanding the Backwater

 The history and demographics of the Yazoo Backwater are crucial to understanding the criticism the pumps have drawn. Around 70% of the Yazoo Backwater core counties’ population is Black. A recent federal Census report identifies those counties as being affected by “persistent poverty,”; poverty that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in a report from 2001 directly attributes to the Mississippi Delta’s history of slavery and its successive mechanisms of sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and disenfranchisement. “This region in the country, more so than other parts of the country, has historical dynamics that affect the economy today,” Nick told me.

At the beginning of the 20th century, most farm owners in the Backwater were Black. “But because of agricultural trends towards large-scale, mechanized farms and discriminatory policies that favored white farmers and systematically disadvantaged Black farmers over the course of decades, that has changed,” Nick explained. Today, the overwhelming majority of “agricultural producers” in the area — 87% and 92% respectively in the two counties that make up most of the Backwater — are white.

Misrepresented benefits

 Proponents of the pumps have long positioned the project as a means for economic, environmental, and racial justice. Nick pointed out to me that Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) and Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) have both called the flooding an “environmental injustice” and emphasized the need to help the area’s “minority community.” But an analysis by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would take on the task of building the pumps, found that 80% of the pump’s financial benefits would be for farmers, who are mostly white. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even vetoed the project back in 2008, in part because the pumps would dry out wetlands and create more low-lying farmland that could further large-scale mechanized farming, contributing to the long-term trends that have pushed Black farm owners and farmworkers out of the Delta for decades. Some assessments even found that the Yazoo Pumps could worsen flooding in a majority-Black neighborhood further downstream.

That is not to say that the debate over the Yazoo Pumps is divided across racial lines. There are Black Yazoo Backwater residents who support the pumps, and white residents who oppose it. The issue is that the pumps’ proponents are using a superficial analysis based on the region's demographics to justify the project and are not being thoroughly considerate of whether the investment would achieve its stated ends.

It’s also worth noting that the pumps would not end flooding in the Backwater — they would reduce the extent of the flooding. “Those reductions, proponents say, make enough of a difference in the right places to make the project worthwhile. Opponents say the reductions mainly would benefit farmers and are another reason why the pumps aren't worth the cost,” Nick explained.

“These realities make the environmental justice [and] racial equity justifications for the pumps seem too simplistic,” Nick said. “It may be meritorious to build the pumps on other bases, but on the bases of justice, the case is a lot more complicated when you start to scratch the surface.”

Beyond the veneer

 Nick told me that the bigger picture here is the question of how critically, thoughtfully, and carefully the federal government is examining projects like the Yazoo Pumps through an equity lens: Are they truly grappling with the legacy of systemic and historical inequities and determining whether a project like this would help mitigate or exacerbate those inequities?

“It is a good thing that the debate has shifted to put the Black community at the center of the discussion over the merits of the project. But if the conversation is superficial, it can become a fig leaf for the real, more cynical justifications,” Nick explained.

These are complex issues, but the federal government should do their best to genuinely account for them. The pumps are a prime case for what policy experts call a racial equity impact assessment, which could attempt to work through whether the pumps are likely to alleviate, reinforce, or worsen racial inequities using a data-driven, fact-based approach.

The Army Corps of Engineers is due to deliver an assessment of the Yazoo Pumps this month. We’re hoping that assessment takes into account a substantial cross-section of views so the concerns surrounding the pumps are taken just as seriously as the good these pumps are purported to do.

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