Update, Wednesday, May 4, 2001: The Nature Conservancy has an interesting and informative blog post on the New Madrid Floodway, its history and its purpose.
Monday night the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew the Bird’s Point levee and released the flooded Mississippi into the New Madrid Floodway to protect Cairo and other cities along the river in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Within the 132,000 acres that comprise the New Madred Floodway, there are two refuges–the Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area and Big Oak Tree State Park, a National Natural Landmark. The rest is valuable farmland. It is all a part of what Missourians call Swampeast, which produces 25 to 30% of Missouri’s cash crop per year both inside and outside the floodway. Some of that will be lost to farmers who will see this year’s crop washed away now that the Corps of Engineers have blown the Bird’s Point Levee. And the torrent of water will tear up the land, at least at the break point and maybe further inland.
Big Oak Tree State Park and, to a lesser extent, Ten Mile Pond are the remnants of the Great Swamp that once covered Swampeast and the Missouri Bootheel and extended clear south into Arkansas. The swamp was logged and drained for agriculture at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area–a mix of wetlands, grasslands, forests, and fields–lies within the New Madrid Floodway about five miles southeast of East Prairie and ten miles north of Big Oak Tree State Park. Most of the rest of the floodway is the fragmented remains of the Great Swamp, patchy corridors for the movement of wildlife between the two refuges, lost between vast fields of cotton, rice, and soybeans. Ten Mile Pond is tiny: 3,754 acres, a destination for bird watchers who come for eagles, mallards, ring-necked ducks, and shorebirds; anglers who come for catfish, crappie, bass, and sunfish; and hunters who come for doves, quail, and waterfowl. Since 1982 the department has worked to restore 1,200 acres of wetland habitat to a region drained for agriculture. Resource managers manipulate its ponds for moist soil management to provide millets, smartweed, sprangletop, sedges, pigweeds, and invertebrates for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. They raise row crops and browse for geese and field-feeding ducks, and set aside 150 acres of sunflowers for doves.
Ducks Unlimited took on a wetland acquisition and development project to restore 800 additional acres of wetlands close-by as a priority wintering habitat in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.[i]
Ten Mile Pond is dependent on rainwater to refresh its wetlands. Big Oak Tree State Park gets river water when the Mississippi backs up into the New Madrid Floodway at floodtime.
As recently as the 1980s the Mississippi backed up and flooded the lower third of the floodway every tenth or twelfth year, but with evermore water coming down the Mississippi and the Ohio, backup became a yearly occurrence by the turn of the century. When it did occur, it refreshed the wetlands in Big Oak Tree State Park, located near the foot of the floodway and adjacent to the mainline levee.[ii]
Big Oak Tree State Park is a thousand-acre bottomland hardwood forest, eighty of which are in virgin timber. In 1938 local residents of Mississippi County, Missouri rescued the thousand acres in the 132,000-acre floodway from logging and draining. The park safeguards the largest tract of uncut bottomland hardwood forest in Swampeast, where once more than two million acres stood. There are nine state and national champion trees, each with a canopy 120 feet tall.
The swamp provides habitat to 150 species of birds, forty-four species of fishes, and thirty-one species of reptiles. The National Park Service designated Big Oak a National Natural Landmark in 1986.
A 2005 survey of the what trees grew where in the park broke communities into four zones: Below 290 feet above sea level, the cypress and shrub swamp, 583 acres, is flooded throughout the year except in cases of extreme drought. Between 290 and 291 feet, stands of cypress and hardwood or cypress and cottonwood, 193 acres, are flooded most of the growing season most years. Between 291 and 292 feet, stands of overcup oak, sweetgum, red maples, green ash, and sugarberry are seasonally flooded, particularly early in the growing season. Above 292 feet stands of bottomland hardwoods are temporarily flooded every eleven to fifty years out of a hundred.
The network of drainage channels that make farming in the New Madrid Floodway possible have dehydrated the wetlands in the park, stressing them, but when the river floods, the park gets new water.
[i] U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District, Revised Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement Number 2 for the St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project, December 2005, viii, http://www.mvm.usace.army.mil/StJohns/Studies/sjnm_Final.pdf;
Missouri Department of Conservation, “Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area, http://mdc.mo.gov/documents/area_brochures/8241.pdf ; Ducks Unlimited, Southern Regional Office, “Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area Wetland Acquisition and Development, http://southern.ducks.org/ten_mile_pond.php.
[ii] Ganey, Terry, “Environmental groups target federal plan to complete levee system, inundate farmland,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 28, 1999, A1; U.S. National Park Service, National Natural Landmark Program, “Missouri: Big Oak Tree,” http://www.nature.nps.gov/Sec8_99/individ_sites?MO_BigOakTree.htm.”