America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2014: Middle Mississippi River
Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky
Threat: Outdated flood management
At risk: Habitat and public safety
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 Corps should abandon the New Madrid Levee project. If they do not, the Environmental Protection Agency should veto the project.
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.
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 EIS. If the Corps refuses to abandon this environmentally devastating project, the Environmental Protection Agency should veto it under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.