Spending Bill Includes Water Damaging Provisions

WASHINGTON, DC, January 27, 2003 (ENS) - The omnibus spending bill passed by the Senate late Thursday includes two provisions that could damage wetlands and waterways.

The Senate voted to direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to enter into contracts for a $181 million project to build a project that will drain and damage 200,000 acres of wetlands in the Mississippi River Flyway. The language in the omnibus appropriations bill directs the Corps to move forward with this project even though the legally required environmental and fiscal reports have not yet been completed.

The Yazoo Pumps project - which will be the world's largest hydraulic pumping plant - will be located near the confluence of the Yazoo and Big Sunflower Rivers north of Jackson, Mississippi. An amendment introduced by Arizona Republican Senator John McCain that would have required the Corps to finish its project planning before entering into contracts was defeated by a 68 to 29 vote.

"Three years ago the Senate voted to spend $8.1 billion to restore 35,000 acres of wetland in Florida's Everglades, today it voted to spend $181 million to destroy four times that many wetlands in Mississippi," said Melissa Samet, senior director for water resources at American Rivers. "Future generations of Americans will pay a terrible price for today's failure to learn from past mistakes."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned that the Yazoo Pumps project will damage more than 200,000 acres of ecologically significant wetlands and alter the natural hydrology of another 725,000 acres of habitat, including the Big Sunflower River. An independent economic analysis commissioned by the EPA concluded that the Corps has exaggerated the agricultural benefits of the pumps by $144 million.

American Rivers placed Mississippi's Big Sunflower River on its 2002 America's Most Endangered Rivers list, citing the ecological and social damage the pumping plants will cause.

Despite Thursday's vote, the Yazoo Pumps still has many hurdles to clear before construction can begin. The contracting directive still has to survive the omnibus bill's conference with the House of Representatives, and the language in the spending bill does not change the Corps' requirements to comply with the nation's environmental laws.

Federal law provides the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the authority to intervene as well.

The Senate also approved the Devils Lake Outlet project in North Dakota, which would spend $100 million dollars to provide an outlet for the lake. Critics say the outlet would send polluted water into the Sheyene River and jeopardize native species.

"Devils Lake and Yazoo Pumps fail the environmental test and the economic test, but passed the political test today," said Bob Perciasepe, Audubon's senior vice president for public policy. "Unfortunately the real losers are birds, wildlife and the taxpayers with this backdoor approval of these destructive projects."

A third amendment that would have exempted the Missouri River from certain Endangered Species Act requirements, allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to flood or move the nests of endangered birds, was not brought to a vote due to its controversial nature.

The Senate voted 69 to 29 to pass the omnibus bill, which combines 11 separate appropriations measures that were not completed during the last Congress.