“Finish the pumps — that’s the number one objective right now,” David Cochran Jr., the newly elected Washington County Commissioner of the Mississippi Levee Board, said.
Tuesday’s election brought out nearly 2,000 Washington County voters, 1,978 to be exact.
Of the 1,978 votes cast, 1,332 (67.34%) belonged to Cochran and 646 (32.66%) to opponent Drew Newsom.
Cochran was emphatic about the support he received from the voters in Washington County as well as his predecessor — Fred Ballard, who served on the Levee Board for 32 years.
On whom or what he credits his victory to, Cochran said, “I attribute a lot of it to people knowing exactly how important the levee is to all of us. Without it, none of us would be here and I’m humbled by the turnout we received.”
Cochran said while he did get out and talk to people and like his opponent, ran a good campaign, he was overwhelmed with the amount of people who took the time to vote in the election.
“I think it may be the largest turnout for a levee board election, if not it’s one of the largest turnouts we’ve seen,” he said.
Growing up with the levee literally in his backyard and farming around it, Cochran affirmed the levee’s significance in that it provides protection for the county and its residents.
Those ties are part of his reason for running for the Levee Board Commissioner seat.
Another reason Cochran attributes to his running for the position is the encouragement of his predecessor, Ballard, and others.
“(Ballard) asked me if I would run in his place and I had others who encouraged me to run. I feel strongly about the levee and making sure that it’s maintained and the fact that we need to finish the pumps,” Cochran said.
Cochran has already established finishing the pumps is the main objective of the board so the issues of the backwater flooding can be mitigated.
He noted in addition to the advocacy and support that is already taking place, there are ballot boxes all around the county and the Mississippi Delta set up to send responses to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg for people to show their support in finishing the pumps.
Information cards, which ask for residents’ names and addresses, can be placed in those ballot boxes.
Cochran said above all, he thanks people for getting out and voting.
“I appreciate everyone who took the time out of their day to vote and give me their support, voiced their opinions, and a special thanks to Mr. Fred Ballard for thinking enough of me to ask me to run in his place after he served there for 32 years,” he said, adding, “And I want to say a thank you to Drew Newsom, who ran a very good campaign.”
Levee board projects
Since 1865, the Mississippi Levee Board has worked to protect the six counties it serves from the flood waters of the Mississippi River.
Those counties, Sharkey, Issaquena, Bolivar, Coahoma, Warren and Washington, are now solely responsible for funding the operation of the levees protecting their land.
Prior to 1927, the board designed, built and maintained the levee independent of other organizations along the river.
After the Mississippi River flood of 1927, the United States government intervened to give control and design of the levees to the United State Army Corps of Engineers.
Since that time, the Mississippi Levee Board has been tasked with maintenance of the levees and procurement of rights of way when changes to the levee structure are required.
The maintenance part of the board’s mandate was never more apparent than during the high-water event of 2018-2019.
The backwater flood tested the levee’s design and, according the levee board chief engineer Peter Nimrod, the levee did its job.
“During a flood like that, you work to maintain the levee,” Nimrod said. “After the flood, you get to make permanent fixes.”
The levee was built to a project design flood limit that has, since its completion, held the waters of the Mississippi inside the levee, but those projected floods were not annual events.
In the last five years, the levee has been asked to withhold extended high-water events each year.
“It’s unprecedented,” Nimrod said. “But something the levee has been designed to withstand.”
The levee is under constant evaluation from both the levee board workers and the Army Corps of Engineers.
“We don’t know if we are just in a wet cycle or if there is a significant change to what we’ll be seeing each year,” Nimrod said.
As the river moves and changes, Nimrod said, the levee is adjusted as well.
That’s where one of the jobs of the levee board comes into play.
The board is tasked with procuring land when it is necessary to expand the levee.
After the flood of 1973, which was a backwater flood similar in intensity to the flood of 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers designated more than 60 miles of levee in the Mississippi Levee Board’s control area that were not to the necessary standard.
Work began on those areas of the levee in the 1990s and since that time, a bit more than 40 of those miles have been brought to the standard set forth by the Army Corps.
While there is still work to be done, the levee holds.
After the flood of 2011, there were several problem areas identified and those have since been remedied.
The work on those problem areas was finished in three years and the first high water event of five in a row occurred in the winter following completion.
“The good lord held the high water off just long enough for us,” Nimrod said.
The Levee Board permanent employees do the daily work of maintenance, the commissioners set the policy.
This most recent election saw two new commissioners chosen for the board, but there is still a wealth of experience, Nimrod said.
The board makes policy based on problems or changes needed in the levee.
“Almost all our votes are unanimous,” Nimrod said. “Even though we start with differing opinions, the board finds a consensus.”
The commissioners also decide how to spend the budget for the levee board which only receives funds from the ad valorem property taxes in the six protected counties.
Though the board’s funding comes only from property taxes, the commissioners make two trips a year to Washington D.C. to solicit funding the levee projects completed by the Army Corps.
The levee board is in strong financial shape, according to Nimrod, with an annual budget of about $2.5 million.
The board had cash reserves of about $4.5 million before the 2011 flood, but was down to about $2.5 million after the flood. The board also purchased about $1 million worth of rights of way in the last few years.
Those cash amounts pale in comparison to what might be spent in the South Delta in the coming years to install a backwater pumping station at the Steele Bayou structure. The pump project could top $400 million.
The pumps were dead in the water after the EPA vetoed their construction 10 years ago, but last year’s flood forced a change.
“No matter what your interest,” Nimrod said. “You realized after last year we needed the pumps.”
The EPA is now working with the Army Corps to produce a new environmental impact statement and design of the project.
The addition of well fields mitigate some of the perceived wetlands impact by allowing water to be pumped from the river to depleted water ways behind the levee during a dry period.
“It’s something we are really excited about,” Nimrod said.