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The St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project

1 Mississippi is hosting a webinar on Monday, June 17 at 2:00 PM CDT on the proposal to close the New Madrid Floodway at its foot. Click here:  https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/8363148575022700544 to register for the webinar.

It’s baaaack: The closure of the foot of the New Madrid Floodway is back on the agenda of folks who farm the floodway and see there land flooded every year the Mississippi Floods. If you remember, two years ago the floodway was opened to provide extra storage capacity for the flooded Mississippi. But every time the river floods water backs up into the floodway at its foot.

It seems that Senator Roy Blunt is pressuring the Obama Administration to go forward with the closure of the floodway by putting a hold on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

I cut the following essay from The Mississippi, because the issue had been resolved in 2007 when U.S. District Judge James Robertson of the District of Columbia ordered the project halted and the work already accomplished dismantled. It had not. Soon after the Memphis District of the US Army Corps of Engineers began working to satisfy the court’s objections to the closure of the floodway. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others who object to the project or no more satisfied with it as it stands now than they were when the judge ruled in 2007. These things never go away. This link will help you understand where the project stands now.

The following is the full story as it stood in 2007:

Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area in the New Madrid Floodway

Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area in the New Madrid Floodway

The St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project

In 1928 when General Edgar Jadwin and the Corps of Engineers designed the New Madrid Floodway, the agency left a 1,500-foot gap at the foot of the setback levee for the release of floodwater and installed a fuse plug levee at Birds Point at its head. The designers understood that the lower third would become a backwater storage area. To compensate landowners for the use of their land, the agency purchased flood easements in the upper two-thirds. That wasn’t necessary in the lower third, which would flood with the river every time. It was the floodway’s role as a backwater storage area that created an uproar at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the Crops published its plan for the St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project, which promised to eliminate backwater flooding in the New Madrid Floodway.

The Water Resources Development Act of 1986 authorized the dredging of St. Johns Bayou for flood control, the St. Johns Bayou Pump Station, which included a gated culvert across the foot of the bayou, and the New Madrid Pump Station and a gated culvert set in the 1,500-gap in the setback levee of the New Madrid Floodway. St. Johns Bayou Basin is located between the setback levee and Sikeston Ridge. The gated culverts would halt backwater flooding from the river, but assure interior flooding in both St. Johns Bayou basin, located between the setback levee and Sikeston River, and in the New Madrid Floodway. The pumps would clear water ponding behind the closed culverts. The culvert across St. Johns Bayou was built. In 1997 the Memphis District of the Corps of Engineers filed its intent to prepare and environmental impact study of the project.

Environmentalists, river conservationists, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and taxpayer watchdogs: all objected. They balked at closing the last connection the Mississippi had to its floodplain in Missouri, at the $65 million cost, at the damage that would be done to Big Oak Tree State Park, at the loss of spawning habitat for fishes and wintering places for waterfowl, to the channelizing of St. Johns Bayou and other drainage ditches. They complained that the project would benefit a handful of big landowners. They noted that East Prairie in the St. Johns Bayou Basin would continue to flood due to runoff from roofs and parking lots. They encouraged the Corps to find non-structural solutions to the flooding problems, including a ring levee around East Prairie.

The East Prairie Enterprise Community, the local sponsor of the project, and other residents of Swampeast, weren’t interested in environmentalists’ concerns. East Prairie residents complained that a ring levee would cut them off from the rest of the world. Farmers gave little support to the Wetland Reserve Program. They had rejected a 1993 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offer to purchase land in the St. Johns Bayou basin for a national wildlife refuge at fair market value. Nor were they interested in converting their lands from crops to timber.

In September 2000 the Memphis District sought to please both the environmentalists and the residents of Mississippi County when it revised its plan. The floodgate and the pumps would stay, but the following changes would be made: the Corps would dredge only the St. Johns Bayou-St. James Bayou drainage ditch, reduce its width from 200 feet to 120 feet, and excavate only one side to avoid cutting into forests. The engineers would not dredge the upper 3.7 miles of St. James Bayou Ditch to avoid the habitat of the golden topminnow, a state endangered fish; would avoid mussel beds or relocate them and set up a ten-year monitoring program. They would set rock structures in the channels to enhance fish habitat; move water in and out of the lower reaches of the floodway and the basin for winter and early spring waterfowl and to allow spawning fish to pass to and from the river; purchase conservation easements on 765 acres of herbaceous land along the channel to replace shorebird habitat; reforest 9,557 acres of seasonally flooded cropland. At Big Oak Tree State Park they would build a control structure to regulate water in its swamps–enough for the cypress, but not too much for the oaks.

Big Oak Tree State Park

Big Oak Tree State Park

The Corps published essentially the same plan in June 2002, but added the construction of the wildlife corridor between Big Oak Tree Park and the Ten Mile Pond conservation area and riparian buffers along sixty-four miles of streams and drainage channels to filter water flowing to Big Oak Tree. Most important, the engineers made the commitment to the restoration of Big Oak Tree, purchasing and reforesting 1,800 acres surrounding the park and restoring the park’s hydrologic connection to the Mississippi with water control structures in the park, a canal with gated culverts set in the mainline levee to allow water to flow between the park and the river. The cost of the new plan came to $85 million dollars and still did not satisfy the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the owner of Big Oak Tree Park.

In 2004 the Memphis District issued a contract for the construction of the New Madrid closure and the pump, but stopped work on the project when National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund filed suit in Federal Court, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.

In December 2005 the Corps published a second Revised Supplemental Environmental Impact that would allow fish to spawn in the sumps behind the culverts and would reestablish the hydrological connection between Big Oak Tree and St. James Bayou through a culvert in the levee.

The Corps pointed out repeatedly that the success of the project depended on finding people willing to sell their land for mitigation to add 1,800 acres to Big Oak Tree State Park or the addition 1037 acres needed for the wildlife corridor and riparian buffers.

In the fall of 2006 the Corps of Engineers started work on the project, even after being told they would likely lose the Federal suit filed two years earlier. The suit came to fruition in September 2007, when U.S. District Judge James Robertson of the District of Columbia ordered the project halted and the work already accomplished dismantled.

Essays on Floodplains–Part 2, Sny Island

Sny Island: The Sny River

Ten thousand years ago, River Warren, a glacial flood, careened down the Mississippi. In the region around Hannibal, Missouri it flowed in multiple channels and 15 wider times than the modern Mississippi. And when River Warren expired, it left behind a sandy terrace, its river bottom. We call the terrace Sny Island, because before it was channelized for agriculture, the Sny River flowed along the valley wall and  separated the island from the mainland.

The Sny River was a branching channel of the Mississippi that acts as a yazoo stream, one that flowed parallel to the big river and drained Sny Island. The Sny heads northeast of Hannibal, Missouri and runs south for seventy-three miles between a wide sloping fan–laid down over the sandy terrace by the many creeks that run out of the uplands–and the broad natural levee of the Mississippi. It reenters the river at Mozier Landing. Farmers on the island changed all that at the end of the nineteenth century.

Sny Island: Kiser Creek

In 1880 they established the Sny Island Drainage district , with the intention of improving  the farmland. Beginning in 1883 farmers who lived along the creeks that flow out of the uplands–Hadley Creek, Six Mile Creek, Fall Creek, Bay Creek, Kiser Creek, and McCraney Creek–formed sub-districts within the larger Sny Island Drainage District. They channelized and leveed their streams and delivered them to the Sny and then the Mississippi. Between 1892 and 1907 district engineers shortened the Sny, straightened out its kinks, cleaned out its trees, and dredged excess sediment from it. In 1911 they found it necessary to widen and straighten the Sny.

Sny Island Farm along The Sny

The completion of the nine-foot navigation channel raised the water level at the mouth of the Sny. Water backed up into the Sny and into the diverted creeks that emptied into the Sny. Silt clogged the channels. Heavy rains that took four days to drain before the dams took four weeks to drain after. Under the Emergency Flood Control Act of 1950, the Corps of Engineers reconfigured the drainage plan for all of Sny Island at a cost of twenty million dollars.

The Corps channeled five creeks that spill onto Sny Island through three diversion channels than ran from the hills to the Mississippi, crossing over the Sny on aquaducts. The engineers built thirteen reservoirs, catch basins for silt streaming out of the uplands, raised and strengthened twenty miles of main stem levee, dredged excess silt from the Sny, and built three pumping stations along its seventy-three mile course to pump out the ditches.

After the Corps finished the drainage system in 1967, farmers on Sny Island complained of seepage in their fields, which they traced to the navigation channel. In 1980 the Corps granted a lump sum payment to the drainage districts which allowed farmers to tile-drain their fields and build private ditches that empty into the Sny via drainage district’s ditches.[i]

Sny River Delta in the Rip Rap Landing Wildlife Management Area


[i] Personal communication Edwin Hajic, August 2, 1999; Hajic, Thesis, 206; Gard, William T., The Sny Story, North Richland Hills, Texas: Smithfield Press, 2002, 29, 35, Gard, 41-47, 109-119.

Essays on Floodplains–Part 2, the Forests

For the second time in two weeks there is an article about the importance of floodplains on the Upper Mississippi River.

Susan P. Romano discusses the decline of floodplain forest in “Our current understanding of the Upper Mississippi River System floodplain forest”, appearing this month in Hydrobiologia, which is only available through Springerlink at a cost of $34.

From St. Paul south to the mouth of the Iowa River, the navigation channel of the Upper Mississippi weaves through c-shaped islands. From the Iowa south the island are narrower and the main channel of the river tends to run to one side of a collection of islands or the other. This is the floodplain of the Upper Mississippi.

Wigwam Slough near LaCrosse, Wisconsin

The early explorers of the Upper Mississippi found a floodplain forest of oaks, shellbark hickory, northern pecans, and hackberries–hard-mast trees that produce nuts, food for wildlife, incased in a hard shell–mixed with silver maple, cottonwood, willow, and green ash–trees that produce wind-blown seeds. Late twentieth century explorers of the Upper Mississippi found a forest dominated by silver maple and willow, mixed with some cottonwood and green ash.  Most of the oaks and hickories on the Upper Mississippi floodplain were lost to logging in the nineteenth century. Those that survived the loggers were flooded out with the construction of the system of locks and dams that produced the nine-foot navigation channel in the twentieth.

Silver Maple edge Heiser Slough, near Muscatine, Iowa, June 1995

Their location in the floodplain determined which trees survived the steady water levels required by the nine-foot navigation channel. Willow, silver maple, cottonwood, and green ash: all tolerate extensive flooding and grow on the lowest and wettest soils in the floodplain. Oak, hickory, pecan, and hackberry tolerate a little flooding, but not the permanent flooding brought on by the nine-foot channel. Those that survived the completion of the dams grew on drier soils on ridges that rose a foot or two above the floodplain.

At the beginnng of the 21st century silver maple dominated the floodplain, but the maples are growing old. While they produce millions of winged seeds every spring, which sprout and grow before the parent trees leaf out, they do not thrive in their parents’ shade. The maples are not replacing themselves.

Maple seedlings along Skunk Slough, Upper Twin Island, near Burlington, Iowa, June 1994

The Flood of 1993 devastated the floodplain forest from the mouth of the Iowa River south, with the loss of trees escalating as the river flowed south.

Forest along Lake Odessa bordering Pool 17 near Muscatine, Iowa, June 1995

Forest managers, who surveyed the Upper Mississippi floodplain after the flood, found that the flood had drowned almost all the hackberries, which grew on the ridges south of Rock Island. In the wake of the flood forest managers with the Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service planted hard-mast trees where hackberries had grown before the flood. They found they could walk away from their plantings with reasonable assurance that the young trees–at least 5/8 inch in diameter and four feet tall–could survive all but the most extensive floods. And, they could trust that the winged seeds of the silver maple, cottonwood, ash, and sycamore would take root and create a diverse forest.

Essays on Floodplains, Part 1

The American Bottom: Fountain Creek, August, 1993

Most of us living in the Mississippi River valley did not look at Global Climate Change as a cause of all that rain that poured down on the Midwest and caused the Flood of 1993. It was not an issue for the folks who examined the causes of the flood when they issued Sharing the Challenge early in 1994.

That’s changing. Gerald E. Galloway, who headed the team that examined the 1993 flood, Jeffrey J. Opperman of The Nature Conservancy, and others published an article in Science last month title, “Sustainable Floodplains Through Large-Scale Reconnection to Rivers.” The writers expect the risk of flooding to increase in the coming years, listing climate change first and shifting land uses second, including the filling of wetlands and the construction of roads, parking lots, roof tops, creating more and more runoff to the rivers as  we expand cities and suburbs.

Developers look at all that good, flat land on floodplains and see industrial parks and even housing developments. Too protect them from flooding they are building higher and stronger levees, withdrawing natural floodstorage capacity floodplains offer and creating higher and more dangerous floods, even as the maintenance of existing levees is underfunded.

The authors propose reconnecting rivers to their floodplains by either removing levees or at least setting them further back in floodplains, particularly in floodplains devoted to farming. Doing so would reduce the risk of flooding in populated areas and increase the goods and services floodplains offer.

Farmfields from levee set a mile east of the Mississippi at Columbia, Illinois

For example: there is a section of floodplain at the end of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge in Monroe County, Illinois that has been flooded now for two years. It first flooded in the spring of 2008, reflooded in the fall of 2008 when Hurricane Ike blew through the Midwest, and reflooded again in the spring of 2009.

Fish washed in with the first flood and bred. As the flood receded the fish got trapped in very shallow water.  Egrets and other fish-eating birds moved in to feed on the fish. When the egrets went south in the fall of 2008, gulls replaced them and fished the floodplain. So did quite a few humans.

The image above is of the American Bottom, the vast floodplain south of St. Louis. It taken a few days after the Flood of 1993 destroyed the levee a mile or two upstream of Fountain Creek, flooding the bottom. The levees that guide Fountain Creek, while the same height as the levee that broke,  sit two feet below in a landscape, that slopes south. Therefore, the flood overtopped and broke through the Fountain Creek levees and flowed south to Prairie du Rocher, where the Corps of Engineers blew up a section of the mainline levee to release floodwaters back into the Mississippi. The floodwaters hung around in some parts of the floodplain until the following spring.

American Bottom Floodwaters, May, 1994

While setting back levees in places like the American Bottom would give the Mississippi room to spread out during major floods, tell that to the farmer who has seen his fields given over to fish and egrets for two years. I’m not sure he would agree. Farmers in the American Bottom still resent that the breaking of their levee, the flooding of their fields, and the destruction of the town of Valmeyer in the bottoms allowed the flood level upstream at St. Louis to be reduced by 1.6 feet.

The article in Science requires a $15 fee to access it. Resilience Science has quotations from the article on its website.

Go to TwoTankTours.com and download An Ecological Tour of Bluff Road and the American Bottom  for $7 for a tour of the American Bottom that includes hikes to the Fults Prairie, the Fort Chartres Island Side Channel and Island, the Meissner Division of the Middle Mississippi NWR, the Kaskaskia River Wildlife Area.