Big Rivers Need Big Wetlands


Illinois Chorus Frog | Chris Young This rare Illinois chorus frog is a candidate for the federal Threatened and Endangered Species list. Once common in southeastern Missouri, the New Madrid Floodway provides critical habitat for the reclusive frog. Photo: Chris Young.

This year, the middle Mississippi River made the 2014 America’s Most Endangered Rivers® list due to a proposed project by the Army Corps of Engineers to build a levee that would completely levee off the New Madrid Floodway. Right now, the Floodway is completely disconnected from the Mississippi River between Birds Point, MO in the north and New Madrid, MO in the south except for a 1,500 foot gap near New Madrid. The gap allows floodwaters to naturally access Mississippi floodplain and wetlands in the southern portion of the New Madrid Floodway.

Closing the levee would block the largest remaining natural floodplain on the Mississippi River. Both the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service have voiced concern that closing the gap in the levee would destroy the largest wetland in the region and the impacts of such action could never be mitigated. And a new study funded by Long-Term Monitoring component of the Upper Mississippi River Restoration program and published in the journal Restoration Ecology[i] provides new evidence to support keeping the Mississippi River connected to its floodplain.

The study was initiated in 2011, when the Corps blew a hole in the northern part of the New Madrid Floodway, completely inundating the floodplain and relieving pressure on levees around Cairo, IL and other urban centers. Scientist Quinton Phelps and his team quickly realized the unique opportunity to evaluate how large floodplains can impact big river fish species.

They found that the inundation of the 75,000 acre New Madrid Floodway significantly increased Mississippi River species diversity, abundance, and growth. Their work cements the notion that allowing big rivers access to their floodplains is “extremely important to riverine fishes.” And we already know that allowing the Mississippi River room to flood can mitigate flood damages in nearby communities.

Protecting the few remaining connections between the Mississippi River and its floodplain is a win for wildlife and a win for humans. Act now to tell the Corps not to build the New Madrid Levee.

[i]Phelps, Q. E., Tripp, S. J., Herzog, D. P. and Garvey, J. E. (2014), Temporary Connectivity: The Relative Benefits of Large River Floodplain Inundation in the Lower Mississippi River. Restoration Ecology. doi: 10.1111/rec.12119

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