The best thing that came out of the Flood of 1993 was the Middle Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge. In August 1993, even before the flood water had drained away from the American Bottom, Congress gave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the authority to purchase frequently flooded lands from willing sellers and establish the Middle Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge in the region along the river between St. Louis and the Ohio, a region where there were too few stopping places for migrating birds and waterfowl. Willing sellers are those farmers who had tired of seeing the crops go under year after year.
Congress authorized the purchase of 17,000 acres. As it stands now FWS has purchased 7,000, mostly on islands in the Middle Mississippi. The refuge is broken down into divisions: Meissner Island in Monroe County, IL, Harlow Island in Jefferson County, MO, Beaver Island, Horse Island, Crains Island, and Rockwood Island in Randolph County, IL, and Wilkinson Island in Perry County, MO and Jackson County, IL.
Meissner Island is tiny, 78 acres, and no longer and island. FWS manages it by doing almost nothing, by allowing what were once farmfields to return to floodplain forest, and by planting oaks and other nut bearing trees to provide food for wildlife.
In 1993 floodwaters breached the levee at Harlow Island and inundated 800 acres of agricultural land. Three years later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased all 1225 acres of the island and did not repair the levee. A young forest, made up of willow, cottonwood, and silver maple, took root in the old cornfields.
The narrow channel between the island and the mainland carries water from Muddy Creek and Saline Creek to the Mississippi. The Fish and Wildlife Service would like to reconnect the channel to the river and dredge it to deepen it for habitat for over-wintering fish.
Degognia Creek streams out of the uplands into the batture lands on Rockwood Island and flows between farm fields and a levee to the Mississippi. Here, Degognia Creek built its own little floodplain, edged by willows and cottonwood, just the kind of batture lands the USFWS seeks for the Middle Mississippi River NWR. To the south farmers on Wilkinson Island put 1,900 acres in the WRP in the wake of the 1993 flood. The USFWS purchased 632 acres for the refuge. To the north a $1.10 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation allowed Southwestern Illinois Resource Conservation and Development and the American Land Conservancy to purchase land on Rockwood Island for the refuge.
The American Land Conservancy, which takes on projects other organizations find too small or complex, identified as many batture lands outside the levees of the Middle Mississippi as it could purchase, with the intention of restoring and reforesting flood prone farmland and opening side channels to fish. The ALC purchased 3,200 acres on Kaskaskia Island, enrolled 2,220 acres in the batture lands in WRP, and began restoration, planting 178,672 oak, cypress, hickory, pecan, and tupelo seedlings on 410 acres and building contour levees to impound water for wading birds. In time the ALC will donate the land to the Middle Mississippi NWR.
Picou Pond, Kaskaskia Island
When I was finishing up The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, I contacted Robert Cail, the Middle Mississippi River NWR, and asked if he could get me out to Liberty Chute and Rockwood Island. He said, “When the flood gage on Chester drops below 17 feet and stays there for three weeks, we will be able to go out to the island.”
I saw him a year ago and complained that I had not been able to get down to see him because the river and I had not been on the same page for more than a year. When I had a day to spend on the island, the river was always flooded and so to the island and all the lands in the Middle Mississippi NWR. He responded, “Yeah, ever since I got here I have seldom been able to inspect the refuge. Only by boat during flood time.”