Pondberries could lead to another legal challenge for the Yazoo pumps

The Environment Protection Agency could reconsider its 2008 decision to veto the Yazoo Pump...
The Environment Protection Agency could reconsider its 2008 decision to veto the Yazoo Pump Project; Source: WLBT
Published: Feb. 9, 2021 at 4:51 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The federal government could face a lawsuit over its support of the Yazoo Backwater Pumps Project, thanks to the impact it could have on a plant called the “pondberry.”

Several environmental organizations have given the feds 60 days to address violations of the Endangered Species Act in connection with the pumps project.

A letter was sent to the acting secretaries of the Army and Interior, the acting assistant secretary of the Army and the acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, informing them of the intent.

The letter was sent by Earthjustice on behalf of American Rivers, the National Audubon Society, Sierra Club and Healthy Gulf.

The group alleges that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in violation of the endangered species rules for “failing to formally consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ensure that the … project will not jeopardize the federally listed pondberry.”

The plant, which is found in much of the Southeast, is federally listed, according to the letter.

“In early spring, this distinctive plant produces small clusters of yellow flowers, which are an important winter food source for pollinators, followed by green fruits that ripen to red by fall,” the letter states.

NRCS/USDA map shows location of pondberries in the United States.
NRCS/USDA map shows location of pondberries in the United States.(USDA/NRCS)

Further, pondberries are “almost exclusively found in wetlands and thus is a key indicator of wetland health.”

The Yazoo Backwater Pump area contained more than a dozen “potential pondberry populations located within 177 … sites in 2005,” the letter goes on to say.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vetoed the initial plan in 2008. The corps drew up a second plan to get around that veto.

In a revised environmental assessment, the corps found that the pump redo project also led to a steep decline in pondberry populations.

Earthjustice said that because pondberries could be affected, the corps was required to “formally consult with the” Fish and Wildlife “to ensure that the proposed project is not likely to jeopardize the species.”

However, the corps did not do that and approved the project in January 2021.

The pumps are designed to address flooding concerns in a 630,000-acre area between the Mississippi River and Yazoo Rivers in the Mississippi Delta, the Environmental Protection Agency’s website states.

It includes the addition of a 14,000-cubic-feet-per-second pumping station that would “pump surface water out of the Yazoo Backwater area during high water events on the Mississippi River.”

EPA states that “at least 67,000 acres of wetlands and other waters of the United States” would be adversely impacted.

In January, outgoing EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Gov. Tate Reeves, and other leaders announced that the project had the green light to begin construction.

At the time, Wheeler said, “We understand that 9 of the past 10 years, the backwater area has experienced significant flooding that has caused hardship on lives and threatened property of people in the region.”

Part of the funding for the project would come out of the Corps budget, but additional funding from Congress would be needed to complete it. Previous concerns about impacts to wildlife and the environment now in the past after a new pump design and location were put in the plans.

Once built, the pumps would keep backwater levels at 87-feet during flood events, keeping it off thousands of acres of farmland where, in recent years, millions of dollars in crops were lost.

The pumps would also keep water out of hundreds of homes and keep people who have campaigned for years for the pumps out of danger.

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