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The St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project

Robert Koenig has been doing some very good work on the floods of 2011 on both the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, in which he raises the issue of rethinking how we manage both rivers for flood control. The article on the Missouri River includes an interview with Gerald Galloway, who headed the group that wrote Sharing the Challenge in the wake of the Flood of 1993, only to see most of its recommendations disappear into a Congressional black hole. Case in point: a levee break along the Missouri flooded Gumbo Flats, a floodplain in St. Louis County, cutting off access to the Missouri River bridge and St. Charles County along U.S. 40. After the floodwaters drained away, Congress, with the encouragement of Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, authorized the construction of a 500-year levee. Gumbo Flats morphed into Chesterfield Valley, and millions upon millions of dollars of retail construction followed.

The article on the Mississippi looks at reevaluating the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project and the use of the New Madrid Floodway, over 130,000 acres of prime farmland, to siphon water from the Mississippi just south of it confluence with the Ohio to prevent flooding at Cairo, Illinois and city of 2,000 people. Farmers want to see the blown-out levee rebuilt at Birds Point; conservationists want to see the whole 130,000+ acres turned into a national wetlands park with the headquarters at Cairo. A gated culvert, like that at the Morganza Floodway in Louisiana, would allow the Corps to open the floodway more slowly and with less damage to the land.

The Gap between the Levees at the foot of the New Madrid Floodway

The twenty-first century opened with another, similar controversy surrounding the New Madrid Floodway. First, you must understand the design of the floodway: there is a conventional levee along the river and a second levee that run south five miles to the west of the river that runs along St. Johns Bayou, which lies outside the levee.  The two are joined at the head of the floodway with the Birds Point fuse plug levee, which was blown to open the floodway on May 2.  There is a 1500-foot gap at the foot of the floodway, through which the floodwater drains away after the flood on the big river has passed. St. Johns Bayou also drains to the Mississippi through the gap.

Therein lies the controversy at the beginning of the new century: the Memphis District of the Army Corps of Engineers, the citizens of East Prairie, outside the floodway, of Pinhook and Dorena, Missouri, inside the floodway, wanted the gap closed because every time the Mississippi flooded it backed up through the gap and flooded as much as the lower third of the floodway. It serves as a storage area for floodwater, which refreshes the wetlands in Big Oak State Park. In 1997 the Memphis District filed its intent to prepare and environmental impact study on the closure and pump.

Wheat fields surround Big Oak Tree State Park

Closing the gap, however, would have assured that water inside the floodway would have backed up behind the closure, flooding the landscape. To alleviate that flooding the engineers proposed a pump to clear the water out, which would have drained water from Big Oak State Park and St. James Bayou, where the golden topminnow, a state endangered fish, swims.

Environmentalists, river conservationists, the EPA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Missouri DNR, and taxpayer watchdogs hated the project. They hated the cost, $65 million; the hated the damage that would be done to Big Oak Tree State Park; the hated the loss of spawning habitat for fishes in St. James Bayou, inside the floodway; they hated the additional drainage ditches which would dry out other wetlands.

Bur Oak, Big Oak Tree State Park

The people who lived and farmed in the floodway were not interested in the environmentalists’ concerns. They were not interested in putting land in the Wetlands Reserve Program. They were not interested in an offer from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  to purchase land in the floodway for a refuge, not even at fair market value. Nor were they interested in converting their land from row crops to timber. They just wanted their land dried out.

Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area in the New Madrid Floodway

Environmentalists forced the Corps of Engineers to issue repeated Environmental Impact Statements on the project. Each time the engineers tried to please both the environmentalists and the farmers. Each statement retained the closure and the pump. The attempts at pleasing the conservationists depended on willing sellers in the floodway to construct a wildlife corridor through the fragmented ecosystem between Big Oak Tree and the Ten Mile Conservation Area. The statements pleased no one.

The the engineers issued a contract for construction of the closure and the pump in 2004; environmentalists sued to stop construction. The engineers started construction in 2006 even though the law suit had not been resolved. In September 2007 Federal Judge James Robertson of the District of Columbia ordered the project halted and the work already accomplished dismantled. That was the end of that.

The people who live and farm the New Madrid Floodway were not interested in seeing their prime agricultural land converted to wetlands for a wildlife refuge in 1997, nor are they interested in seeing theirs land converted to a huge wildlife refuge after the Flood of 2011. They just want their lands dried out and the Birds Point levee rebuilt.


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