Tell The U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers To Abandon The New Madrid Levee
In 2011, as the Mississippi River crept closer to overtopping levees and flooding communities like Cairo, IL, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dramatically blew up the Bird’s Point levee at the top of the New Madrid Floodway in southeastern Missouri. The Mississippi River rushed into the floodway, taking advantage of the reclaimed space to spread out. Within hours, communities at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers could breathe a sigh of relief as the river began to drop.
Twenty-four hours earlier, the Corps was almost stopped from “activating” the floodway due to an injunction request that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Thankfully, the injunction was denied, but not before the Len Small levee overtopped causing significant flood damage in Alexander County, IL [PDF].
If the Corps proceeds with a proposal to build a levee at the bottom of the New Madrid Floodway, we could see a different result during the next catastrophic flood. This is one reason the middle Mississippi River earned itself the #3 spot on the America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2014.
After the devastating 1927 Mississippi flood caused $1 billion in economic losses and killed up to 500 people, Congress authorized the Corps to build the Mississippi River and Tributaries System [PDF](MR&T) on the lower Mississippi River. This highly engineered system includes 3,486 miles of levees and four floodways— all designed to help give the river more room when it reaches peak flood heights. The Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers is the most upstream floodway.
Creation of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway was controversial from the start because people that owned land in the floodway didn’t want their farm fields intentionally flooded. However, it was clear that to protect towns and more developed areas, the Corps had to allow the river to flood some sparsely populated agricultural land. The Corps purchased flowage easements to compensate landowners for flooding their land during operation of the floodway.
Despite these easements, legal challenges have been brought every time the Mississippi reaches critical levels. During the 1937 flood, Corps employees had to be protected from armed floodway residents by the National Guard. In 1983, landowners filed a lawsuit and the Federal District Court issued an injunction preventing the Corps from operating the floodway. Luckily for Mississippi River communities, flood waters never reached the critical height. In 2011, lawsuits (combined with a storm) delayed the Corps from blowing up the levees until the river reached 61.72 feet. In the meantime, the Len Small levee failed when the River reached 61 feet.
The Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway is almost entirely walled off by levees, except for a quarter-mile gap at the bottom where one of the last remaining connections between the Mississippi River and its floodplain exists. During normal spring floods, water flows through the gap and into the floodway, which is incredibly beneficial to fish and wildlife. These seasonal floods allow fish, birds, and other wildlife a place to feed and reproduce out of the fast moving main channel of the river. This seasonal inundation of the floodplain is the driving force behind the existence and productivity of many river plants and animals. Despite much of the floodway having been converted to agriculture, this seasonal influx of water ensures that the New Madrid Floodway still functions as an integral part of the Mississippi River ecosystem.
Unfortunately, the Corps has proposed to stop this seasonal flooding at the bottom of the floodway by building a new levee. While this could have devastating impacts on fish, wildlife, and wetlands, more concerning for many residents and communities along the middle Mississippi River [PDF] is the potential impact the project will have on floodway activation during catastrophic floods. The Corps claims that their rule books say the floodway would continue to be activated as it always has. However, as we know from experience in 1937, 1983, and 2011, whether or not the floodway is activated comes down to the will of the courts— not Corps plans or manuals.
If the gap is closed and seasonal flooding is stopped, floodway landowners will likely intensify agricultural use and development in the floodway. This in turn will increase opposition to operating the New Madrid Floodway in the future, which puts communities like Cairo, IL, Paducah, KY, and Sikeston, MO, at risk of levee failures.
American Rivers, National Wildlife Federation, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Great Rivers Environmental Law Center [PDF], and many of our partners throughout the Mississippi River Basin encourage the Corps to discard the levee closure plan for the safety of Mississippi River communities and the health of fish and wildlife of the Mississippi River. If they proceed with this plan, we urge the U.S. EPA to veto this project under their Clean Water Act authority.