Corps Should Abandon New Madrid Floodway Project

Mississippi River barge

The Mississippi River’s ability to spread out into its floodplain is important for fish and wildlife and for protecting downstream communities from floodwaters. Unfortunately, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to cut off the Mississippi River from one of its last floodplain connections by constructing a new levee at the bottom of the New Madrid Floodway.

The great Mississippi River once experienced seasonal floods that spread out over its floodplain, creating a mosaic of backwaters, wetlands, and sloughs. These periodic floods were the driving force behind robust and diverse ecosystems that were home to an amazing array of fish, birds, and wildlife. The Missouri “bootheel,” located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, was once one of the nation’s largest and richest wetland areas.

As people altered and harnessed the Mississippi River to advance navigation and reduce flood damages, these floodplain ecosystems were drained and cut off from the river with levees and other structures. The New Madrid Floodway within the bootheel was also drained for intensive agricultural production.

Despite these modifications, a gap in the bottom of the floodway levee system provides a critically important natural connection that allows the river to sustain vital backwater floodplain habitat, including bottomland hardwood forests that are home to bald cypress, nuttall oak, and tupelo gum. The floodway is critical for migrating ducks, geese, and shorebirds like the golden-plover. It supports a rich and regionally distinctive fishery that includes an important white bass fishery and rare species like the golden topminnow, chain pickerel, and banded pygmy sunfish. The gap in the floodway levee system is the key to supporting this diverse backwater floodplain.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to cut off the last connection between the Mississippi River and its natural backwater habitat in the State of Missouri by constructing a new 1,500 foot levee across the gap at the bottom of the New Madrid Floodway. This levee would prevent water from reaching 75,000 acres of floodplain habitat, eliminating the most important spawning and rearing habitat for fish in the middle Mississippi River and destroying habitat that is essential for an array of birds, waterfowl, and mammals.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly called upon the Corps to stop this project because it will cause, “dramatic losses of nationally significant fish and wildlife resources that cannot be mitigated,” and will, “greatly diminish rare and unique habitats found in southeast Missouri.” Furthermore, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said the project, “will cause the greatest loss of wetlands functions in EPA Region 7’s history.” Many outside experts agree that the adverse impacts of the project are so significant that they cannot be mitigated, and believe that the project will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the health of this portion of the Mississippi River.

In addition to the significant and unacceptable harm to fish and wildlife, the proposed levee puts river communities at increased risk by promoting more intense use and development in the New Madrid Floodway, which in turn will make it even more politically difficult to activate the floodway during catastrophic floods. The New Madrid Floodway is used as a relief valve when high water in the Mississippi threatens nearby towns like Cairo, IL. During flooding in 2011, a last minute lawsuit attempted to stop the Corps from taking this important action. When the floodway was finally activated, water levels in the Mississippi River dropped 2.7 feet at Cairo in just 48 hours, sparing the city from potentially devastating flood damage.

For these reasons the following leaders and organizations have all voiced opposition:

  • More than 100 organizations and community leaders have called for a Clean Water Act veto of the New Madrid Levee.
  • Local communities urged the Environmental Protection Agency to pursue a veto because of the risk of “disproportionate harm to the health and safety of minority and low-income populations.”
  • Illinois Senator Dick Durbin asked the Obama Administration to veto the project, pointing out that the Environmental Protection Agency already found the project “would cause ‘significant’ impacts to the aquatic environment including the ‘greatest loss of wetlands function in EPA Region 7 history.’”
  • The Association of State Floodplain Managers, Inc. urged the Environmental Protection Agency to veto the project because it “threatens the safety of many communities and thousands of people… during major flooding on the Mississippi River.”
  • Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Wayne Rosenthal expressed concern that the levee project would “promote intensified use of the New Madrid Floodway” making its activation more difficult, raising flood risk in Illinois.

The Corps is currently finalizing an Environmental Impact Statement for this fundamentally flawed project that was first dreamt up more than 60 years ago. Cutting the river off from its floodplain would destroy critical fish and wildlife habitat and is an entirely unacceptable practice for modern floodplain management.

What Must Be Done

The New Madrid Floodway Project, as proposed, is so environmentally destructive that it simply should not be built. The Corps should abandon this project by selecting the “no action” alternative in its final impact statement. If the Corps refuses to abandon this environmentally devastating project, as we expect, the Environmental Protection Agency should veto it under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.

Click Here to Take action: Tell the EPA to veto this boondoggle project

One Response to “Corps Should Abandon New Madrid Floodway Project”

Dan Drost

To Whom it May Concern,

please take this as indication that I vehemently oppose the construction of a new levee blocking the New Madrid Floodway – I feel that this project is a travesty on a number of levels and urge you to cancel it immediately.