Pumps to relieve flooding in the Lower Mississippi Delta were proposed more than 80 years ago, but strife over whether they’re the best solution has entered the digital age.
Victoria Darden farms soybeans and other crops with her family on 2,200 acres near Goose Lake southwest of Onward, Mississippi. She also serves as the County Correspondent Representative at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.
Jill Mastrototaro is policy director for Audubon Mississippi, one of the environmental organizations opposed to the pumps. In this role, she has been advocating against construction since September 2017.
As designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s, a giant pumping station near where Steele Bayou meets the Yazoo River would move rainwater that accumulates inside river levees when normal drainage is not possible. The pumps would hoist rainwater over the levees and into the river channel. Plans have been debated for decades, but no construction has taken place. The pumps would not be activated every year, only when high river stages coincide with heavy rains in the Delta.
Such was the case in 2019, when rain left hundreds of thousands of acres in the flat expanse under water. L&R Farms, Darden’s family business, was one of many unable to produce any crops. Darden, in her 20s, said she had heard about floods and the potential for floods when she was growing up, but had only experienced one in 2011, and that flood did not cover her family’s farm. Although her family had crop insurance in 2019, they did not plant a crop, and thus did not receive a payout. But another, non-economic matter piqued her interest.
To get to her home Darden and her family had to park at a neighbor’s house and take a boat into the property. During, these boat rides she photographed of alligator, deer and other wildlife. She described in detail the fear she noticed in deer that were stranded on islands and levees along her path to her home.
“We had several deer that would get spooked by the boat motor just because it was loud and their senses were so heightened,” Darden said. “They were so stressed they didn’t have food and they were starving. I mean they went through the worst imaginable situation.”
She often would see deer separated and alone. She believed that those deer separated themselves because they thought they were going to die, and uncounted hundreds did.
“It was the worst smell you could ever imagine. I promise you I can identify it at this moment, what it is I don’t even have to look,” Darden said.
As time went on, she said her original skepticism or indifference about the proposed pump project began to fade as she began to realize the realities of the floods. She originally believed that many people in the community who pushed for the pumps were a little bit crazy. However, as time went on her views changed.
“We got the sense no one wanted to help us; we were very forgotten about. We could not get the national media to pay us attention no matter what we tried,” Darden said.
Darden saw the need for her community to figure how to get the media’s attention. Her solution was to begin working to generate a following and support the only way she knew how, on social media.
She turned to Instagram and Facebook where she began tracking, publishing and reposting content related to the floods. She created three hashtags to help drive engagement and increase the following of their cause. The South Delta may not be known for its youthful population, but Darden said she found a following. “I have grown up around an older generation my whole life. I get along with them real easy and we communicate well,” she said.
Despite the generational gap, her older neighbors lagging technological skills got up to speed and started posting on social media.
“They really wanted to help, they had the heart for it and they just did not know how. We’d teach them and then they’d be on it and they’d be hash tagging and it was pretty impressive what they could do when you just showed them a few things.”
The pump conversation and rain combined with Social media prowess during and after the floods of 2019 became a significant motivating factor getting the community and others across the state and nation involved. Darden said she understood that capturing images and streaming community meetings was essential to getting their voices heard.
After the floods receded, the community was fundamentally changed. Some packed up and left, but those who remained are now almost entirely in support of the pumps. The flooding is about more than a missed crop year. It’s about jobs, homes, the entire agricultural economy – and widlife.
The initial community meetings held in early during the flooding were attended almost entirely of government representatives and members of the community, Darden said. Almost everyone present at these meetings were in support of the pumps and were facing high levels of fear and uncertainty.
However, at larger public comment sessions held by organizations such as the Mississippi River Commission, Darden said she noticed that there were people at the meetings who were openly in opposition against the pumps. According to Darden, they did not speak publicly at those meetings, but instead would speak in private after with the Environmental Protection Agency representative present at the meeting.
An EPA veto during the administration of the first President Bush had effectively killed the last pump plan design. Environmental organizations, large and small, opposed the pumps back then, and most still do.
Mastrototaro wrote an op-ed titled “Pumps Would Destroy Wetlands” that was published in the Yazoo Herald in May 2019. She emphasized that the project would only partially prevent flooding, destroy wetlands that provide natural flood protections, and make the backwater area more vulnerable, all while being 100 percent funded by taxpayers and not passing a cost-benefit analysis.
“Audubon believes communities in Mississippi’s South Delta deserve real solutions for reducing flood damages, not false hope pinned to the ineffective, environmentally destructive Yazoo Backwater Pumps,” Mastrototaro wrote.
Generally, environmental groups assert that the primary purpose of the pumps is to increase economic output of agribusiness in the Delta, despite the negative environmental repercussions caused by increased agricultural land use and the potential destruction of nationally treasured wetlands and wildlife that currently reside in the area.
Darden, who witnessed the harm to wildlife caused by what she sees as preventable flooding, said she believes that the environmental organizations that are opposing the pumps are only doing so because they use the issue as a motivating factor to drive donations.
“They do that because even though the data is supporting us and she is still against it,” Darden said. “That is because that’s how they make money. That is how they keep their support going. … Why they do not have sympathy for the animals or for the people I just do not know, I just can’t wrap my head around it,” Darden said.
One consequence of the divide amplified by social media centered on a Jackson event usually attended by thousands who stroll among scores of vendors at the end of each summer season. The Mississippi Wildlife Extravaganga is sponsored by the private Mississippi Wildlife Federation, which opposes the pumps. Some facts are in dispute and are, in fact, in litigation. Darden says she was granted a vendor permit, later rescinded, to staff a booth to provide information in favor of the pumps. The federation says the permit was for Darden to sell photographs.
The withdrawing of the permit went viral on social media, resulting in the state Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks ending its afffiliation, many vendors pulling out and a low attendance. As it happened, Darden was able to be present in the booth of another vendor, but it’s clear that social media is a powerful tool for moving people to action and the platform made by Darden has been widely successful at meeting its purpose.