Standing water has become a part of the scenery along U.S. Highway 61 from Natchez to the South Delta. Stagnate, murky water floats in homes and businesses, displacing citizens across the western part of the state.
Roads, forests and fields are covered with water, preventing families from returning to their homes and pushing wildlife from their habitats. Farmers are waiting for waters to recede so they can go back to work. Business owners are waiting for the farmers and other citizens to begin spending money with them again. Wildlife are starving. Mississippi is hurting.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 1.5 million acres of land in Mississippi has been flooded at some point, impacting farmers and ranchers, wildlife, business owners and the everyday citizen.
Flooding along the river can be attributed to multiple different causes depending on the location relative to Vicksburg.
North of Vicksburg, in the South Delta, hundreds of families and thousands of wildlife have been displaced by the numerous months of flooding. Much of the flooding in this area is due to heavy rainfall and the unfinished Yazoo Backwater Project.
Warren County Farm Bureau President Mac McKnight’s farm sits off Highway 61. While sandbags are in place as a precaution for the city of Vicksburg, McKnight’s land looks more like a lake than farmland.
“This year, the water has gotten hundreds of homes and farmland that didn’t even go under in 1973,” McKnight says, referring to one of the Mississippi River’s most severe floods of the 20th century. “Folks that have never had water in their houses and shops or over their farmland are experiencing it this year. Unfortunately, it’s just another year for me.”
For 25 years, the Jones family has owned and operated Wellspring Fisheries in Sharkey County with few setbacks. This year, however, co-owner Bobby Jones says the family has taken measures to protect its 102 catfish ponds.
“We’ve had to pull levees to increase our exterior levee height to keep water from coming in on us,” Bobby Jones says. “We’ve also had to stage on what pond we’re stocking for the baby fish based on where the floodwater is and where we think we might get floodwater. Overall, our production hasn’t stopped through all of this; it has just been difficult to strategize where we will be placing our baby fish coming out of the hatchery because we don’t want to place them in a pond that will potentially flood.”
On average, Jones’s family fisheries hatch 75 million fish annually. This year, though, he predicts they will be lucky to hatch 50 million.
Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation President Mike McCormick believes the duration of this year’s flood will have an enormous impact on Mississippi’s economy.
“This flood has had an impact on the farmers and their ability to get their crops in the field. It’s going have a huge impact on the towns up and down the Mississippi River and in the Delta.”Mike McCormick, President of Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation
Business owners in towns along the Mississippi River, including Tracy Harden, owner of Chuck’s Dairy Bar in Rolling Fork, have already begun experiencing the negative effect of the floods.
“We are supported by planting season, harvest season and hunting season,” Harden says. “So, that’s three knocks in a row. We have farmers that have not been able to farm or plant. They have gone from buying lunches to feed seven or eight workers to sometimes not buying at all.”
Karl Holcomb, owner of Holcomb Flying Service in Flora, and his family built a successful crop-dusting company servicing farmers along the Mississippi River. Since the beginning of the 2019 flood, he has flown multiple aerial tours to document the massive impact flooding is having on farming, wildlife and rural living.
“To actually get in the air and fly over a house that’s sitting with four feet of water in it opens your eyes to the situation,” Holcomb says. “To know that a family lives in that house and has been displaced by these waters is heartbreaking.”
“When you start looking at the economic impact of all of the farm acres not in production, the timber being deteriorated and the wildlife being displaced, it makes you wonder why something hasn’t been done,” he continues.
Forty-one percent of the continental United States drains down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Mississippi Levee Board. Because of this, Congress granted the federal government the responsibility to manage Mississippi River flooding under the Flood Control Act of 1928.
Under this Act, Congress also established the Mississippi River & Tributaries Project which issued the federal government to build levees and floodwalls, floodways, channel improvement and stabilization, and tributary basin improvements. When work began on this project, it became clear the construction cut off drainage outlets for interior basins. To compensate for this, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1936, which authorized the federal government to manage river basins flowing into the Mississippi River, including the Yazoo Basin.
Congress issued the Yazoo Backwater Project in the Flood Control Act of 1941 following the removal of the Eudora Floodway from the Mississippi River & Tributaries Project. The plans for the Yazoo Backwater Project include four major components – levees, a connecting channel, drainage structures and pumps.
In 1969, the Steele Bayou and Little Sunflower Drainage Structures were completed. When water stages on the Mississippi River side of the levee are lower than stages on the basin side, these gates are opened, allowing storm water to pass through. When water stages on the Mississippi River side of the levee are higher than stages on the basin side, these gates are closed, preventing flood waters from entering the South Delta.
The Yazoo Backwater Levees, completed in 1978, run along the west side of the Yazoo River from the Mainline Mississippi River Levee to the West Guide Levee. The connecting channel of the Yazoo Backwater Project, also finished in 1978, connects Big and Little Sunflower Rivers, Deer Creek and Steele Bayou in order to push water from the Delta to one point at the Steele Bayou Drainage Structure.
The original Yazoo Backwater Project plan called for pumps to be installed at this point to pump excess rainfall trapped on the landside of the levee and drainage structures over the closed Steele Bayou Drainage Structure gates into the Mississippi River during high water situations.
Unfortunately, the Yazoo Backwater Project pumps have yet to be installed. In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the Yazoo Backwater Project under the authority of the Waters of the United States rule, halting any proceedings to install the pumps.
If installed now, the Yazoo Backwater Project pumps would cost approximately $220 million and take four years to complete. The Mississippi Levee Board believes more than $372 million in damage would have been prevented from 2008 to 2018 if the pumps had been in place.
With every passing day, water still in the fields means less crops and less income for farmers.
“Sadly, I don’t see an end in sight. I believe this will be a major issue for years to come. We need to continue talking to the legislators so we can get the pumps finished.”Bobby Jones
“We still make a crop every year,” McKnight says. “But to put it in basic terms, the longer this water stays around, the less time our crops have to grow, the more our salary gets cut. Eventually, it trickles down from us to the consumer. It might take a while, but no matter who you are, it will affect your pocketbook.”
Harden knows the decrease in farmers’ income will decrease her income, as well.
“I’ve had employees ask for more hours because their boyfriends or husbands work for some of the farmers and are not needed,” she says. “The extra money they normally make is not going to be there for them. Next year could be a catch-up stage for the farmers. This could hurt the businesses in the community because the farmers will be paying for other things. I have employees counting on me and I want to take care of them. I want to support the community, as well. Yet, I am even hesitant to give as much because I don’t know what’s to come.”
South of Vicksburg, in the batture land, farmers are facing flooding problems for a different reason.
“We’ve noticed a change in the river,” Jefferson County farmer Louis Guedon says. “Every spring at some time, when you plant below the 50-foot line, you’re starting to roll the dice (against the Mississippi River). It didn’t used to be like that.”
In the past, farmers could plant crops along the Mississippi River without worrying about flooding every year, according to Guedon.
“Now, it seems as though farmers are battling floodwaters every single year,” the fifth-generation farmer says.
Guedon and his family farm approximately 12,500 acres of corn, cotton and soybeans, in addition to raising several hundred head of cattle. The family has lived in the Mississippi batture land for 150 years, so they are extremely familiar with the nature of the Mississippi River.
“When I was a young man, we had backwater every once in a while,” Guedon says. “In ’73, we had a huge flood that reached 57 foot on the Natchez (Mississippi River) gauge. At the time, my uncle said, ‘You need to look at this because you’ll never see it again.’”
Howard Jones, vice president of J.M. Jones Lumber Company in Natchez and fourth-generation forester, says the flooding does not only impact Mississippi’s farmland, but also its timber industry.
“My major concern from the river is all the batture land that’s (planted) in timber land. The frequency of the water and the duration of the floods is killing the timber. The timber is degrading. The farm land is degrading. The sand deposits are making our ground sterile. It is a huge problem.”Howard Jones
J.M. Jones Lumber Company survived the Mississippi River floods of 1927, 1973 and 2011. Now, the fight against the river happens almost every year.
Howard Jones and his family began building their own levee system around their lumber yard in 1997. It holds the river out, but with the vibration caused by the sawmill and the soaked ground from the rainfall, the family has to shut the mill down for days at a time so the ground won’t crumble out from underneath them.
“The ground, the seepage, is tremendous now because the river has been up for so long,” Howard Jones says. “I don’t know if this is just going to be the new norm, you know. They talk about having 100-year floods and 500-year floods, well, we’re having them every other year now.”
Claiborne County Farm Bureau President David Doyle is among the many farmers waiting for floodwaters to recede. Doyle currently has hundreds of acres under water and cannot even access his fields due to the flowing river water creeping inland.
“It’s a bad feeling when you see all of this,” Doyle says of the water rushing across his access road. “When I first started leasing this farm back in ’96, it would flood like one out of seven years. Now, if it doesn’t flood one out of 10 years, you’re lucky. It’s every year now. Every year.”
“If this year is anything like in 2011, I probably won’t plant at all,” he continues. “I didn’t plant a crop then. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.”
Several factors have changed regarding the Mississippi River since the 1970s, according to Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser of the Army Corps of Engineers. The amount and intensity of rainfall over a short period of time areas around the Mississippi River receive each year is 8% higher now than 40 years ago.
“We’re seeing the channel filling in with sediment,” Kaiser says. “So, you’ve got less capacity to carry the water. We’re aware of that and we’re working to figure out what is the best way to move all this stuff out of here and reduce some of the problems (farmers are) seeing.”
Kaiser says the Army Corps of Engineers must study what is happening in order to address the flooding problems.
“We recognize that there are things going on with the river,” he says. “In the past, we have done some studies in this area that really revolve around the Red River, the Washita, the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi. We are working to finish that study to find solutions to reduce the flooding that we experience in this region.”
McCormick does not believe flooding in the batture lands will be an easy fix, but hopes steps are being made to help farmers affected by it.
“The Army Corps of Engineers understands this is a problem and they’re willing to work on it,” McCormick says. “That’s a huge step forward.”
Guedon believes the Army Corps of Engineers will eventually find a solution to the flooding in the Mississippi batture land, but hopes the government will assist farmers losing crops to the floodwaters in the interim.
“None of us want to be insurance farmers,” Guedon says. “But we are asking for some help to stay afloat until the Corps figures out what they’re going to do with the river.”