The Interests Behind the Yazoo Pumps

Digging deeper into a federal flood mitigation project.

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Who’s behind the pumps?

Earlier this month, The Bridge delved into POGO’s new investigation of a flood mitigation project in the Mississippi Backwaters. The Yazoo Pumps project is being revived by the Biden administration after being stalled for the better part of 80 years (and even formally vetoed by the Environmental Protection Agency back in 2008). At a cost some opponents of the project estimate to be over $1 billion, the pumps would reduce the extent and duration of flooding in low-lying farmland in the Yazoo Backwater. Given the history, demographics, and persistent poverty of the area, the project has been touted as a means for environmental and racial justice. But it’s been brought into question whether this pricey project would actually help the majority of residents in the area, or if the bulk of the benefits would go to owners of the farmland, who overwhelmingly skew wealthy and white.

In part one of The Bridge’s look at this investigation, we explored the misrepresented benefits of the pumps as an environmental justice project. For today’s edition, Nick Schwellenbach, POGO Senior Investigator and author of the Yazoo Pumps investigation, is back to answer some of my questions on who is positioning the pumps this way.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

In the investigation, you mention a few groups who’ve become key players on the ground advocating for this project, namely the Delta Council and the Mississippi Levee Board. Can you explain who they are and how they’ve organized around the Yazoo Pumps?

Let’s start with the Delta Council. They’re essentially a local Chamber of Commerce based in the Mississippi Delta. Historically, in this area, the farming industry has always dominated the economy. And so, the membership of the Delta Council has historically mostly comprised of people with ties to the agricultural industry. In a way, the Delta Council represents the economic elite of the region. It’s a politically powerful group. A lot of their framing of their positions on issues is that what’s good for them is de facto good for the Delta.

Then there’s the Mississippi Levee Board. They are a state-level entity focused on protecting the Mississippi Backwater region from floods, and who the Army Corps are collaborating with to build the Yazoo Pumps. Each representative on the Mississippi Levee Board represents a county that the board helps protect from flooding.

The Mississippi Levee Board and the Delta Council have a lot of interconnections in their membership. A lot of the members are people involved in the local agricultural industry looking out for the interests of people like themselves. As I mention in the investigation, they’re highly organized around the pumps: They’ve collaborated to meet with senators on the issue.

What sort of arguments have these groups made in support of the pumps, and how successful have they been?

If you listen to the casual assertions made by pumps supporters, you could easily get the impression that this is this silver bullet that will benefit virtually everyone in the Yazoo Backwater. But the reality is quite different. In my conversations, I found that it’s been highly obscured in arguments that the pumps would only reduce the extent of flooding in the Yazoo Backwater and wouldn’t prevent flooding altogether. Likewise, it’s been obscured that the lion’s share of benefit from the pumps would flow to farm owners.

Here’s an example I share in the investigation: In 2021, the Mississippi Levee Board put out a pro-pumps press release claiming that over 90% of the homes destroyed by a 2019 flood in the Yazoo Backwater were BIPOC-owned. And people ran with this claim. I have always questioned whether that statistic was true. I sent questions to the board and the Army Corps about the claim, but no one gave me a substantive response. So last year, I filed a request through the Mississippi State Open Records law for data supporting the claim. But after the filing, the board started hedging the way they described the flood impact, sending me a response that said what had flooded were “structures” located “in minority areas”. Some Yazoo residents shared with me that the “structures” in question were actually sheds, barns, hunting blinds, and such.

The issue is that many proponents of the pumps keep citing the area’s demographics — that the Yazoo Backwaters are a majority-Black region and that there’s persistent poverty. But will the pumps do much for that community? Is that a misleading claim that they’re making?

The Army is set to release an initial assessment on the Yazoo Pumps soon. As part of that assessment, they’ve made it clear they want to get a good temperature check on how the locals really feel. In your time visiting Yazoo, did you notice any roadblocks that may make that difficult?

I visited a few engagement sessions that the federal government had set up to understand the community’s views on the Yazoo Pumps project. In the sessions I attended, most attendees were white, even though the Yazoo Backwater counties are majority Black. In the investigation, I also talk about a listening session in August 2022 where there were accusations of heckling and intimidation against the attendees who expressed concerns about the pumps.

I think the federal government does not yet have a good grip on what the community at large really thinks about this project because of the skewed nature of the debate. In our research, we obtained records that showed Mississippi Levee Board members working with the nonprofit Finish The Pumps to coordinate turnout at these listening sessions. Nothing about that is illegal, but it shows how these different interests are working together, and it really begs the question of whether turnout at these sessions reflects the views of the community at large.

I think the specific lack of Black resident turnout at the sessions I attended shows that there has been a breakdown in the federal outreach to the Black community in the Mississippi Delta. If people aren’t even showing up, that’s a sign that they don’t think it’s worth going, that they don’t think it’s worth giving their two cents.

The federal government has pledged to do meaningful community engagement as it assesses whether the pumps will be good from an environmental justice standpoint. But it really has got to go the extra mile to reach people, because I think there’s a trust deficit that their concerns will be valued. But the government must consider the interests of all the people who live in the area, and not just serve the narrow interests of the well-organized few.

For the full picture, read the investigation on our website now.