Big Sunflower River Maintenance Project


The Big Sunflower River Basin encompasses approximately 4,100 square miles. It is part of the Yazoo Basin located in northwest Mississippi which itself covers 13,355 square miles. 140,487 citizens live within ten counties (Humphreys, Sharkey, Sunflower, Washington, Coahoma, Tallahatchie, Bolivar, Leflore, Issaquena, and Yazoo) which are impacted by the Sunflower River Basin. The annual average rainfall in the basin is 54 inches.

The Flood Control Act of 1944 authorized channel improvements for flood control on the Big Sunflower River and its tributaries. The original construction work consisted of channel clean out, channel excavation, clearing and snagging, and channel diversions on 633 miles of the Big Sunflower River, Little Sunflower River, Steele Bayou, Bogue Phalia, Quiver River, and other tributaries. This headwater flood control project is a component of the overall Yazoo Basin Project which, in turn, is a feature of the Mississippi River & Tributaries Project. Construction of the Big Sunflower River & Tributaries Project was initiated in the late 1940's and completed in the 1960's.

In 1950, the Mississippi Legislature authorized the Delta's two Levee Boards to participate as the local sponsor for these Corps of Engineers' projects. The authorization for this project requires that the local sponsors perform certain tasks for the acquisition of rights-of-way on which the land cost is paid for by the Corps of Engineers. Upon completion of construction, the Levee Boards are obligated to the Corps of Engineers to provide minor maintenance activities to the completed work with major maintenance requirements remaining a federal responsibility. Additional work along Steele Bayou was authorized in the Flood Control Act of 1965 to provide a higher level of protection to the City of Greenville than achieved in the original project.


Following severe flooding of the Bogue Phalia in July 1989, the citizens living in south Washington County expressed serious concerns that the project completed in the 60's was not performing as it had in earlier years. The claims of the citizens proved to be accurate when the Mississippi Levee Board performed surveys and accumulated stage readings along the lower Bogue Phalia following rainfall events. The Vicksburg District Corps of Engineers observed that stage discharge information along the lower reaches of the Big Sunflower River also showed the need for major maintenance. The Levee Board requested special funding from Congress for two consecutive years to provide the preliminary engineering study and the environmental impact studies. These studies confirmed that major maintenance was indeed required. The Corps' analysis proved that the system had lost some of the channel capacity that existed when the project was completed due to build up of sedimentation in the channel. Measurements indicated that the sediment depths ranged from 2-5 feet above the original channel cross-sections. The recommended maintenance will restore capacity, thereby reducing stages by up to three feet to the same level that existed in the 1960’s.

The proposed major maintenance work now scheduled will restore the authorized flood control capacity to approximately 130 miles of the original 633 miles of channel.


The Big Sunflower River Maintenance Project has been designed to avoid and minimize adverse impacts on the environment and natural resources. The majority of the work will be accomplished utilizing a hydraulic dredge and/or clearing and snagging. This drastically reduces the environmental impacts during the construction process. This method is far less damaging to the environment but more costly. As part of the maintenance project, 1,912 acres of mitigation land will be purchased and reforested.

By removing accumulated sediments from the river, the Big Sunflower River Maintenance Project will remove toxic materials, such as DDT, that are attached to sediment particles. The sediment will be placed in confined disposal areas where it will be isolated from the aquatic environment. This process is very similar to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed cleaning of the Hudson River in New York to remove PCB contaminated sediment by dredging.

The confined disposal areas can be designed to accom-modate a variety of purposes. They are constructed with water control structures which can be left in place and used by the landowner to pond water for water-fowl. The water control structures can be re-moved and the disposal area can be reforested, converted back into productive farmland, or used as an elevated industrial site.

The environmental studies conducted by the Corps of Engineers found dense populations of mussels along various reaches of the Sunflower River scheduled for maintenance and in areas above those slated for maintenance. Consequently, there has been a national campaign initiated by the enviro-nmental community to stop this work and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has requested that these reaches of this channel be declared Category 1 Habitat because of this mussel resource.

During design of the project, the Corps of Engineers removed the areas with the greatest mussel population from construction in what is known as "no work sections." The project has also been designed to restrict the dredging to the center 1/3 of the channel whereby the shallow waters along the bank will remain undisturbed. These two changes by the Corps will drastically reduce the impacts to the mussel population. The removal of the sediment will provide a firmer bottom to the channel which will provide a habitat better suiting the reproduction of the mussels. It is interesting to note that the highest concentration of mussels currently found in the Big Sunflower River are located in reaches that had been modified during the original project through channel excavation, which re-moved sediment and provided a firmer bot-tom for better mussel recruitment.

With this environ-mentally sensitive de-sign, as well as with the cooperation of the Governor’s Office, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies, agreements appeared to have been reached to allow the project to proceed. This project is supported by all local governmental agencies in the project area.


However, private environmental organizations continue to oppose the work. The National Wildlife Federation challenged the Big Sunflower River Maintenance Project in the Federal District Court of Washington, D.C., contending that cost sharing should apply to the work and that the Corps of Engineers had failed to meet the requirements of NEPA by not adequately considering a non-structural alternative to the project. Mississippi’s two Levee Boards, as well as nine counties, seven cities, nine towns, fifteen drainage districts and ten soil and water conservation districts intervened on behalf of the Corps of Engineers. The Corps and intervenors prevailed in this litigation.


Mississippi Levee Board
Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee Board
Washington, Yazoo, Bolivar, Issaquena, Coahoma, Tallahatchie, Sunflower, Humphreys and Sharkey
Leland, Cleveland, Hollandale, Rolling Fork and Pace
Sunflower, Alligator, Anguilla, Lyon, Boyle, Tutwiler, Sumner, Arcola and Gunnison
Greenville and Rosedale
Otter Bayou, Deer Creek Number One, Number Seven, Number Eleven, Bogue Hasty, Bear Pen, Northern, Number Twelve, Clear Creek, Laban Bayou, Shaw, New Porter Bayou, Hushpuckena, Number Ten and Number Eight
Bolivar, Coahoma, Yazoo, Leflore, Humphreys, Issaquena, Sunflower, Tunica, Washington and Sharkey

The Sierra Club and a local landowner also filed suit against the Mississippi Commission on Environmental Quality (MCEQ) opposing the issuance of the Water Quality Permit for the maintenance project. This litigation was filed in Chancery Court of Hinds County and, again, the two Levee Boards and the other local governments intervened in the litigation on behalf of the MCEQ. The Chancery Court found in favor of the MCEQ. The Sierra Club appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Mississippi, which remanded the decision back to the MCEQ for addtional findings. The MCEQ and intervenors filed a Petition for Rehearing before the Supreme Court on May 3, 2001. An injunction was not sought in the lawsuit. The Supreme Court Action resulted in the temporary loss of the Water Quality Permit delaying contruction on this project.

It is noteworthy that the Sierra Club, at the national level, has recently praised the EPA's decision to require dredging of the Hudson River to remove toxins. As mentioned, the work on the Hudson is very similar to the work the Corps is proposing for the Big Sunflower River Maintenance Project.


The major maintenance activities on the Big Sunflower River Maintenance Project are to be accomplished by ten separate items of work. The first maintenance contract, Item 3, which included 7.2 miles of clearing and snagging on the upper portion of the Little Sunflower River, was completed in August, 2000. One of the disposal areas for Item 2, the lower portion of the Little Sunflower, has been aquired and the second site is being designed. The Mississippi Levee Board is also in the preliminary stages of locating disposal areas on Item 1, which includes the area starting south of Hwy 14, around the old bendway to Holly Bluff and continuing downstream to the Yazoo Backwater Connecting Channel. The Corp of Engineers is in the process of preparing an Environmental Assessment (EA) to document the additional studies that have been accomplished since the completion of the SEIS in 1999.


The Big Sunflower River Maintenance Project will result in no net loss to the environment. 1,912 acres of frequently flooded farmland will be purchased as mitigation and reforested. Dredged sediment will be placed on land in confined disposal areas. Test results have proven that important water quality benefits will result by removing DDT sediment from the riverbed. On other completed projects, DDT concentrations have decreased approximately 85% where sediment has been removed. Testing of fish tissue has shown that DDT levels were reduced significantly and are well below 6.0 parts per million (PPM)--the EPA's limit for banning fish for human consumption--following the Upper Steele Bayou Channel Improvement Project. In fact, most of the fish tested were below the 1.0-PPM limit for no restriction. Similar testing results are expected for the type of work planned on the Big Sunflower River Maintenance Project.

Moreover, the Big Sunflower River Maintenance Project is a critical component in flood control. It is imperative that the safety and security of Delta residents be a top priority. The safety and security of the lives, property and well-being of our area's citizens is the mission of the Mississippi Levee Board.

Recommended Reading References

Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son - 1941 - William A. Percy
Speeding the Flood to the Sea - 1946 - W.A. Elam
Levee Districts and Levee Building in Mississippi - 1951 - Robert W. Harrison
Flood Control in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley - 1951 - Robert W. Harrison
Alluvial Empire - 1961 - Robert W. Harrison
Rising Tide - 1997 - John M. Barry