• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

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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.


Tough Times on the Mississippi. Maybe not so tough.

The Coast Guard closed two sections of the Mississippi over last weekend, where barges broke loose at St. Louis and Vicksburg, rammed bridges,  and then sunk.

Thursday we had 4-5 inches of rain in Monroe County, Illinois at the east in of the Jefferson Barracks bridge, which was hit by one or more barges early Sunday morning. All that water poured into the Mississippi, causing the first flooding since the fall of 2011. This morning the flood gauge at St. Louis hit 35 feet, five feet above flood level, the highest it has been since 2008. The Coast Guard reopened the river this morning, It seems the sunken barges will cause no harm to navigation and the stranded barges are outside the navigation channel.

The Jefferson Barracks Reach of the Middle Mississippi, July 2012.

The Jefferson Barracks Reach of the Middle Mississippi, July 2012.

At Jefferson Barracks the Mississippi is wide and shallow and has caused the Corps of Engineers no end of trouble since the first began deepening the channel to 9 feet in 1872. Last summer the drought was so severe and the river at Jefferson Barracks so shallow that sandbars were forming between the dikes.

The Jefferson Barracks Dike Field, St. Louis Harbor

The Jefferson Barracks Dike Field, St. Louis Harbor

Upstream of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge the dike field was exposed so long that vegetation took root and got a pretty good start before flooding came along and washed it away.


Lower Reach of Jefferson Barracks Chute

Lower Reach of Jefferson Barracks Chute

Last summer the side channels almost dried up. This spring flooding has filled them and flushed out excess sediment. Fish will be able to find quiet places to spawn.

Low Water on the Mississippi and Thebes Gap

Thebes Gap:

Alexander County, Illinois

“Here is a vast ledge of rocks, which stretch across the river in a direct line. The best channel in the middle of the river, in which place in low water, there is not more than six feet over the rocks.”–Zadoc Cramer, 1814

Rock Formation in the Middle Mississippi at Thebes Gap, 2006

Rock Formation in the Middle Mississippi at Thebes Gap, 2006

The Mississippi is running very low. After the Flood of 2011, the river drained away very quickly and the rain stopped. By the Summer of 2012, we in the Midwest were well into the Drought of 2012 and the river was showing the effects. Now in January 2013, the Upper Mississippi is frozen and the system of locks and dams is retaining water north of Alton, Illinois. On the Missouri a similar system of dams is retaining water in South Dakota and too little water is flowing into the Mississippi to maintain water levels for the 9-foot navigation channel on the Middle River.

Look at any aerial photograph of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi. The muddy Missouri spews a flume of silty water into the relatively clear Mississippi. They flow side by side downstream--the Missouri on the west, the Mississippi on the east--for several miles. During the very cold winter of 2000-2001 it was possible to see this phenomenon from the Illinois bank near the spot where Lewis and Clark started their journey up the Missouri: Lock and Dam 26 at Alton trapped ice coming down the Mississippi. South of the dam the river flowed free of ice, but ice did flow out of the mouth of the Missouri. At the confluence the two rivers, the icy Missouri and the ice-free Mississippi flowed side by side in the Mississippi channel.

Look at any aerial photograph of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi. The muddy Missouri spews a flume of silty water into the relatively clear Mississippi. They flow side by side downstream–the Missouri on the west, the Mississippi on the east–for several miles. During the very cold winter of 2000-2001 it was possible to see this phenomenon from the Illinois bank near the spot where Lewis and Clark started their journey up the Missouri: Lock and Dam 26 at Alton trapped ice coming down the Mississippi. South of the dam the river flowed free of ice, but ice did flow out of the mouth of the Missouri. At the confluence the two rivers, the icy Missouri and the ice-free Mississippi flowed side by side in the Mississippi channel. In the Winter of 2013 too little water is spewing out of the Missouri to feed the Middle Mississippi.

 Thebes Gap is the geological break point between the Upper Mississippi and the Lower Mississippi. The Upper Mississippi flows through a rocky gorge from Minneapolis to Thebes Gap. South of there the Lower Mississippi meanders across an alluvial plain.

At the beginning of the glacial age, the Lower Mississippi flowed along the western valley wall through an alluvial floodplain in the Western Lowlands along the Black, White, and St. Francis Rivers.

From The Mississippi: “Geologists have speculated that the river abandoned its alluvial valley and diverted through Thebes Gap, a narrow bedrock canyon in the Benton Hills, through the series of glacial floods at the end of the Wisconsinan age. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, seismologists questioned why the Mississippi would abandon its comfortable alluvial valley to ream a new course through bedrock. They noted that fault lines in the Benton Hills were active 10,000 years ago, and speculated that an earthquake along fault lines in the Benton Hills opened the canyon that is Thebes Gap. Glacial River Warren, which broke out of a glacial lake that covered northern Minnesota and North Dakota and reached north into Canada,  thundered through it, and deposited a classical alluvial fan at the mouth of the canyon.”

 “Thebes at the head of the Grand Chain and Commerce at the foot of it were towns easily rememberable as they had not undergone conspicuous alteration. Nor the Chain, either–in the nature of things; it is a chain of sunken rocks admirably arranged to capture and kill steamboats on bad nights.–Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Thebes Gap, where the Mississippi takes a wide turn into the narrow reach of Thebes Gap.

Thebes Gap, where the Mississippi takes a wide turn into the narrow reach of Thebes Gap.

Mark Twain knew Thebes Gap, and while it is no longer killing steamboats, this winter modern tows can’t get through this narrow gorge between the Upper Mississippi and the Lower Mississippi.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have contracted with Newt Marine and Kokosing, a marine engineering firm out of Iowa and Michigan,  to remove the rocks from Thebes Gap. When they are done there on January 11, they will move on to Grand Tower.

A tow steams passed Tower Rock at the beginning of December.

A tow steams passed Tower Rock at the beginning of December.

The river level today at Chester, Illinois is -0.6 feet, which means it is possible to walk out to Tower Rock and see just how low the Mississippi is.

[i]             Cramer, 173; Harrison, Richard W., “Report on Investigations of the Benton Hills, Scott County, Missouri, in Midwest Friends of the Pliestocene, 42nd Annual Meeting, 19-21 May 1995, 7.3; Harrison, Richard W., “Mid-Continent Urban Corridor Mapping Project,” USGS Project No.: 7160-11, U.S. Geological Survey, http://erp-web.er.usgs.gov/reports/annsum/vol40/cu/harrison.htm; Elfrink, Neil, “Gujarat Analog Response,” Archives of Central U.S. Earthquake Hazard MailList, March 21, 2001, http://clifty.com/hazard/archives/1010302-021954.html; Guccione, Margaret, “Re: ‘Gujarat Analog,’” Archives of Central U.S. Earthquake Hazard MailList, Feb 16, 2001, http://clifty.com/hazard/archives/1010216-111758.html.

Mississippi River Barge Traffic Slowed or Stopped near Greenville


 “Spanish Moss just below No. 82. This is a beautiful right hand bend forming three-fourths of a regular circle of about eight miles in length.

“The left had shore around this bend is clothed with willows and sand bars. Near the lower end of the bend the river in its highest state become much crowded together, not being more than a third of a mile in breadth, consequently very deep and rapid, and full of boils or swells, but no way dangerous.

“This settlement, of four small cabins, occupied by one Indian, one French, and two American families, having as many corn patches of three or four acres to each house, is at the right hand point immediately below the Spanish Moss bend, and a little above the head of No. 83. The bank here is pretty high, but I fear the overflowings of 1813 have destroyed all present attempts to continue the settlement. The peach tree leaves were green here on the 21st of December 1812, through the fall had been unusually cold and early, and the winter afterwards more severe than had been witnessed in 20 years.

“Just above the settlement you run nearly east, and three miles below it as nearly west.” –Zadok Cramer, 1814[i]

On Monday, August 20 a barge ran aground on the Lower Mississippi south of Greenville, Mississippi. The U.S.  Coast Guard closed the river to barge traffic, but reopened it 12 hours later to slow-moving southbound traffic, alternating with slow-moving north bound traffic, with the Coasties acting as traffic cop. There is history behind these problems at Greenville.

In the wake of the Flood of 1927, which drowned the Lower Mississippi alluvial valley from wall to wall, Congress authorized the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project in the Flood Control Act of 1927. The project standardized and raised the levees between Cape Girardeau, Missouri and Venice, Louisiana. It allowed reservoirs on the headwater tributaries of the Mississippi (Table Rock Lake on the White, Clearwater Lake on the Black, Wappello Lake on the St. Francis, all in Missouri; Arkabutla Lake on the Coldwater, Grenada Lake on the Yazoo, Sardis Lake on the Little Tallachatchie, and Enid Lake on the Tallachatchie, all in Mississippi) to retain flood waters in the uplands until the Mississippi could hold them. On the other hand, water released from the reservoirs during a drought can raise the level of the river. It created the New Madrid, Atchafalaya and Bonnet Carre Floodways (all used during last years flood) to siphon off floodwater, and in the case of the Atchafalaya and Bonnet Carre carry it to the Gulf of Mexico without ever returning it to the Mississippi. Finally, it authorized cutoffs across point bars to shorten the river and speed floodwater downstream. Therein lie our current problems on the Mississippi near Greenville.

The grey line follows the old Greenville Bends.

From the Mississippi: A Visual Biography Draft: Rowdy Bend, Miller Bend, Spanish Moss Bend, and Bachelor Bend: the river zigged and zagged between Arkansas City and Greenville, Mississippi. River pilots called them the Greenville Bends. They were shallow and meandered through erosion-resistant and cohesive clay. The Corps of Engineers worked for years to prevent the river from cutting new channels across the point bars that formed them, only to have General Harley Ferguson include them in his cutoffs to shorten the river and speed floods downstream.

Follow the thin blue line to understand the Greenville Bends and Point Bars across which General Ferguson made his cutoffs.

A meandering river works hard to maintain a fairly constant length. Natural cutoffs are its means. When the river becomes too long and its slope too flat, its searches out a steeper, more efficient slope. It makes a cutoff across the narrow neck of a point bar or by forming a chute across a wider part of the point bar. Once the river makes a cutoff, the speed and the slope of the river above the cutoff increase, it erodes its banks and its bed, adding to the load of sediment it carries. Below the cutoff the river remains unchanged. It moves slowly down a shallow slope, forcing the river speeding through the cutoff to slow down and deposit its sediment downstream of the cutoff, creating a new sand bar, around which the river will meander, restoring its length. In its natural state the Lower Mississippi made a cutoff once every seven to ten years. After it made a cutoff, the river took thirty to eighty years to recover and regain its width, its bar sequence, and its flow regimen.

Before Ferguson made his cutoffs, the average length of the Lower Mississippi River was about 1080 miles. It varied up and down as the river made cutoffs and created bars, but it always came back to the average. Ferguson lopped off 116 miles off the average in the 330 miles between the mouth of the Arkansas and the mouth of the Red River.

It was a mere fifteen land miles between the head of Rowdy Bend, the first Greenville bend, and the toe of Bachelor Bend, the last, but fifty miles by river. After 1880 the river added seven miles in the bends as it shaved sediment off the concave bends, deposited it on the head of the point bars, and threatened to chew away the levees on both banks. The Corps spent much time and money building revetments to stop the river’s meander at Rowdy Bend and Bachelor Bend. And, as Cramer noted, the river slowed and pooled in the bends at flood time, acting like a dam. Floodwaters back up to Arkansas City. In Ferguson’s view the bends had to go. Bachelor Bend, on which the City of Greenville is located, volunteered to go first. That was not Ferguson’s plan.[ii]

Bachelor Bend and Point Chicot aka Lake Ferguson north of Greenville

Ferguson only planned two cutoffs at the Greenville Bends and Bachelor Bend was not one of them. The bendway wrapped itself around Point Chicot. In 1882 the distance across the neck of the point was 5,500 feet, just over a mile. Within twenty years the distance had narrowed to 3,500. The Corps of Engineers constructed a protective dike, 6,250 feet long, across the axis of the neck. The Mississippi continued to scour the neck, reducing the distance across it to 2,600 feet by 1910. The Corps extended the dike a half mile. The Floods of 1922, 1927, and 1929 scoured a trench across the neck. The Corps responded with a mile-long permeable dike. The river broke through the new dike on July 8, 1933, deepened the trench, and forced Ferguson to move up his plans to take out the Greenville Bends by two years.

Spanish Moss Bend and Carter Point

While the river, in 1933, did not develop a new channel across Point Chicot, its elevation was three and a half feet higher on the upstream side of the point than the downstream side. The next flood could ream an uncontrolled cutoff through the point. That the river chose the place for the cut across Point Chicot and not the general added to his worries.  Therefore, to align the cut across Tarpley Neck to eliminate Spanish Moss Bend, and the cut across Ashbrook Point to eliminate Rowdy Bend with the river’s cut at Point Chicot, and to incorporate Miller Bend between the two artificial cuts, Ferguson had to redraw his plans.

Lake Ferguson Marina. Greenville’s Casino floats on Lake Ferguson, but goes no where.

Ferguson and his engineers finished the work the river had started across Point Chicot and aligned it properly in 1933, leaving Greenville on the shores of Lake Ferguson, old Bachelor Bend. When they finished the new channel, called the Leland Cutoff, carried fifty percent of the flow during the low-water season in 1933.

The Mississippi south of Greenville at the Leland Cutoff

The Corps started work on the lower end of Tarpley Cutoff in January 1935 directly opposite the head of the Leland Cutoff and completed it on Easter Sunday in April just as the crest of the 1935 flood streamed past Greenville. The cut, through sandy soil, was 13,000 long, 250 to 300 feet wide, and forty feet deep. Its slope was five times greater than the slope around Spanish Moss Bend. The new channel developed rapidly, but because the slope was steep and the soil sandy, the river flowed in a braided pattern and deposited many sandbars at the foot of Tarpley Cutoff.

The sinuosity of the old Greenville Bends allowed the Mississippi fifty-three miles to negotiate the steep grade between the top of Askbrook Cutoff and the foot of Leland Cutoff. The meandering channel gave the river a place to deposit its sediment: on Ashbrook Point, Point Comfort, Carter Point, and Point Chicot. Ferguson made his cutoffs and created a relatively straight, wide channel, but the steep grade remained and caused all kinds of problems for the engineers.

Tarpley Cutoff above Greenville

Almost as soon as it opened up, a sand bar formed at the mouth of the Tarpley Cutoff. The Corps dredged it away with a pump dredge only to have it form again two years later. Year in and year out the Corps dredged from the top of Ashbrook Cutoff to the foot of Leland Cutoff, but could not create a reliable navigation channel. The steep grade and the clay bed never allowed the river to adjust its slope or scour a deep channel. Nor could the river manage its sediment load through the wide channel that had a constant slope of a half-foot per mile.

Beginning in 1963 the Corps laid revetments on the banks to discourage scour and built training dikes to catch sediment and lock in the channel, reducing the need for so much dredging. But, still the river deposited sediment in the navigation channel, which shifted constantly, leading one potamologist to suggest the solution to the Greenville Bends was to use the training structures to create a sinuous channel that would allow the river to meander and handle its sediment the old way, by shaving it off the concave bends and depositing it on the convex bends.[iii]

Thus during the drought of 2012, when the river ran very low, barges ran aground and traffic backed up on the Lower Mississippi south of the Leland Cutoff at Greenville, Mississippi.

[i]             Cramer, 200.

[ii]             Winkley, Brian R., Man-made Cutoffs on the Lower Mississippi River, Conception, Construction, and River Response, Potamology Investigations, Report 300-2, Vicksburg: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1977, 3-10; Camillo and Pearcy, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, http://www.mvd.usace.army.mil/mrc/Upon_There_Shoulders/Chapter11.htm.

[iii]             Winkley, Brien R., Man-made Cutoffs on the Lower Mississippi River, Conception, Construction, and River Response, Potamology Investigations, Report 300-2, Vicksburg: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1977, 50-69; Schumm, Stanley, and Brinkley, Brien T., “The Variability of Large Alluvial Rivers, New York: American Society of Civil Engineers, 1994, 66-70; Smith, Lawson M., and Winkley, Brien R., “The Response of the Lower Mississippi River to River Engineering,” Engineering Geology, 1996, 441-442.

The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge-America’s Great Outdoors Rivers Program

The Cache River south of the Black Swamp in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

The Cache River rises in the northern reaches of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley in Arkansas and flows to its  confluence with the White River, just south of Clarendon, Arkansas. In 1972 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began the process of channelizing the lower Cache River for flood control. In doing so they cut off several meanders just north of Clarendon.

Cache River and Meanders north of Clarendon, Arkansas

Led by dentist Rex Hancock, Arkansas duck hunters and environmentalists went nuts, sued the Corps, and held up the project long enough to have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service establish the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in 1986. The grateful state of Arkansas created and named a wildlife management area for him.

The Black Swamp within the Rex Hancock Wildlife Management Area

Together with the White River National Wildlife Refuge and several Arkansas wildlife management areas, the Cache refuge encompasses 500,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, a mere fraction of the 25,000,000 acres that covered the Lower Mississippi Valley. What was forest when Europeans arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries is now land devoted to rice, cotton, and soybeans.

Forty years after the Corps began channelization of the Cache, the engineers are going to restore flow to three meanders that were cut off. When they finish, they will have restored something close to the natural hydrology of the old meanders and enhance the ecology of aquatic organisms-river fish, freshwater mussels, and microscopic aquatic animals.

Project Map

The U.S. Department of the Interior has included the Cache River Restoration Project in the American Great Outdoors Rivers Program, an effort to reconnect Americans with their river heritage. The Corps partners in the project are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns the Cache and White River refuges; the Natural Resources Conservation Service; The Natural Conservancy; Craig Campell of the Stephens Group; the City of Clarendon; and the Cache River/Bayou DeView Improvement District.

It’s Duck Season on the Upper Mississippi

Wigwam Slough off Goose Island

The duck are migrating and need to find quiet places to fatten up and rest about every fifty miles. There are refuges on the mainland, like Green Island in Iowa and Spring Lake in Illinois. And there is the river itself, once a maze of islands and sloughs, changed by the construction of the dams:

“From Minneapolis to Alton, the river drops 327 feet in elevation. Along that stretch of the Upper Mississippi, the locks and dams and the nine-foot channel formed a river staircase of twenty-six shallow lakes or pools. The locks lifted or dropped shipping from one pool to the next. The dams created three distinct habitats within each pool: In the tailwater, downstream from the dam, the river remained almost unchanged, a maze of deep sloughs and wooded islands, a home to diving ducks, especially scaup. Here, transitory islands that might have washed away in the next flood became permanent islands. In the mid-section of each pool, there were large areas of shallow, open water where the dams flooded hay meadows and floodplain forests. These areas turned into broad marshlands–Weaver Bottoms, Spring Lake, and others, where wildlife–fish and puddle-ducks like mallards–thrived.”–From The Mississippi: A Visual Biography

At the end of the twentieth century the Wisconsin DNR and the Corps of Engineers made the first attempts to aleviate the flooded conditions of the lower third of the navigation, by drawing down water levels behind the dams. They started on a small scale in the 1990s and graduated to whole pools in the first years of the twenty-first century, when they drew down Pool 8 and watched the grasses grow.

At the beginning of the summer of 2001, the Corps of Engineers drew down Pool 8 by eighteen inches to expose submerged sandbars and allow dormant seeds to germinate. The Flood of 2001 delayed start of the drawdown by three weeks and shortened its duration to forty days. It did, however, expose two thousand acres of sediment. The seeds responded: arrowhead, nutgrass, rice cutgrass, millet, smartweed, and American lotus. Fifty species of moisture-loving plants, emergent plants, and aquatic plants took root. Shore birds and wading birds patrolled the exposed mud flats. Swimmers basked on the sandy islands; campers pitched their tents; anglers cast their lines.

Plants in the mid-section of the pool remained above water longer than those in the lower regions of the pool, which were reinundated in mid-August. In October migrating waterfowl–tundra swans, ducks, and geese–stopped to rest and feed on the new plants.

U.S. Geological Survey personnel from the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center at Onalaska, Wisconsin monitored the growth of the vegetation in eight backwater areas in Pool 8, including the pond between Goose Island and the delta of Mormon Creek. There they found an increase in both submergent plants–coontail and various pondweeds and rooted floating leaf plants–water lilies. The agencies repeated the drawdown in 2002.[i]

Goose Island: Stoddard Slough

The drawdown of Pool 8 was so successful, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to close sections of the pool to boats and hunting to allow migrating ducks a place to rest. They first close the 984-acre Goose Island complex of islands and sloughs to boats and hunters in 2007 and they will this year from October 15 to the end of hunting season on December 4. Two other areas will be closed: the Wisconsin Islands–behind Lock and Dam 8, also in Pool 8 and the Lake Onalaska Voluntary Waterfowl Avoidance Area in Pool 7. Strategically placed buoys alert hunters that they are entering a no-go area.
While hunters may not enter these resting and feeding areas, they do lurk outside them and blast away at the ducks as they leave, injuring more ducks than they kill.

[i]             Eberhard, Christina, Drawdown, habitat restoration may be coming to Pool 5 soon,” Winona Post Online, Sunday, August 11, 2002; USGS, Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, Vegetation Response to a Water-Level Drawdown of Pool 8 of the Upper Mississippi River,” http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/aquatic/drawdown_p8_veg.html; USGS, Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, “ Pool 8 Transect Data Summary,”  http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/data_library/vegetation/transect/pool8/p8_summary.html; Verstegen, Peter, “Pool 8 drawdown recharges plants, helps waterfowl,” Crosscurrents, October, 2002, St. Paul District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, http://www.mvp.usace.army.mil/docs/crosscurrents/October2002a.pdf.

Ecosystem Restoration: The Upper Mississippi and the Louisiana Coast, Studied to Death

Weaver Bottoms

While I was researching The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, I spent a morning with Mike Davis, who researches mussels on the Upper Mississippi for the Minnesota DNR. Mike pointed to a shelf in the corner of his conference room at his office in Lake City, and ranted about the number of studies the Corps of Engineers does that go no where or not far enough. The following morning he took me out into Weaver Bottoms and Half Moon Lake near West Newton, Minnesota and showed me how deposits of sediment trapped behind Upper Mississippi  dams–Lock and Dam #5 in this cas–from its tributaries were smothering mussel beds in Weaver Bottoms.

In 1986 Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act which included the Upper Mississippi River Management Act, which acknowledged that the Upper Mississippi is a nationally significant ecosystem as will as a nationally significant navigation system and was an effort to restore its degrading marshes and islands.

Bayou Rigolettes Shoreline Restoration Project

In 1990 Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act which included the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protections, and Restoration Act, also know as the Breaux Act and know familiarly twenty years later as CWPPRA. Both acts funded small ecosystem restoration projects.

Lock and Dam 26, Alton, Illinois

Neither act did anything to change the factors that caused the degrading ecosystems. The dams on the Upper Mississippi remained in place and continued to trap sediment behind them, smothering mussle beds.

MRGO at Ycloskey

Navigation channels like MRGO and oil company channels  remained in place, funneling salt water into freshwater marshes, killing them. The levees along the Mississippi would remain in place, depriving marshes in Barataria Bay and Breton Sound precious freshwater and sediment whenever the Mississippi had a flood like the one of 2011 or any other flood.

By 1998 the people working  to restore the Louisiana coastal marshes–the Corps of Engineers, the Louisiana DNR, the EPA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, etc–recognized that small projects were never going to do the job. They signed the Coast 2050 Feasibility Cost Share agreement, by which they would share the $14 billion cost of repairing Louisiana’s coastal marshes. Not until 2003 did the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers come up with the draft study of the project. The Bush administration paled at the cost and sent the engineers back to work to come up with the smaller, more focused, less expensive proposal of projects that could be completed in the near term. The Corps published the $1.9 billion Louisiana Coast Area Ecosystem Restoration Study in 2007 and Congress authorized it in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, but did not fund it.

In the years following the passage of the 1986 Upper Mississippi act, it became clear that small projects were not going to do the job there. In 2000 the Corps of Engineers treated the nation to the lock extension scandal, a proposal to extend the locks on five dams north of the Alton Dam, #26, north of St. Louis. It seems the engineers cooked the books to justify the extension and a Corps economists called them out on it. When the dust settled, Congress authorized the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, which included the lock extension, but also authorized a$1.7 billion ecosystem restoration program in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act, and ordered the Corps of Engineers to pursue lock extension and ecosystem restoration simultaneously, but funded neither.

That Congress included the Louisiana Coast Area Ecosystem Restoration Study, puny though in was in light of the need, and the  Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, even if it included lock extension, in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act brought hope to those of us who care about the Upper Mississippi and the Louisiana coastal islands and marshes. The economy was in recession when President signed the act into law. The economy crashed the following September. Congress still has not funded either program.

That Congress has not funded the lock extension gives Upper River environmentalists hope that they will never be funded, but nor will ecosystem restoration.

BP agreed to a $20 billion fund to compensate those people whose businesses along the Gulf Coast were harmed by last summer’s massive oil spill. Environmentalists and others hoped that some of that money could go into ecosystem restoration.

Last week the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers signed yet another agreement with the State of Louisiana to study the possibility of redesigning the Mississippi to divert water and sediment to Barataria Bay to the east and Breton Sound to the west.

We know what needs to be done on both the Upper Mississippi and the Louisiana Coast. We have studied the ecosystem deterioration to death and the marshes continue to die. What we end up with is a pile of unfunded studies.