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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.

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The Economic Value of Louisiana’s Coastal Wetlands

Crab Boat on Bayou Penchant in the Western Terrebonne Basin

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, (R-New Jersey) chair of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Committee has released his Energy and Water Appropriations Bill for 2013. This bill covers appropriations for the Department of Energy (Nuclear Security, Gasoline prices, Energy programs, Yucca Mountain, Science Research, Environmental Management) the Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The New Orleans Picayune took note of the fact that Mr. Frelinghuysen’s bill, which includes $4.8 billion for the Corps of Engineers) included no money for Coastal Restoration. He wants to see the Corps of Engineers focus on navigation and flood control projects to the exclusion of environmental projects, including those requested in President Obama’s budget. He notes that such projects are “job creators.” President Obama had proposed $4.7 billion for the Corps budget for 2013, including $16.8 million for ecosystem restoration in Louisiana.

So, what is the value of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands?

From The Mississippi

“Before Katrina and Rita (seven years ago) tore through Louisiana’s coastal marshes, the environmental and economic necessity of a healthy system of wetlands was little understood outside the state. After Katrina and Rita we finally understood that Louisiana’s coastal wetlands buffer storms. But, we still needed to learn that they absorb nutrients, sediment, and contaminants. They serve as the breeding, spawning, feeding, and nursery grounds for fish and shellfish at some time in their life cycles. Summer flounder, spotted seatrout, snook, tarpon, and others spawn in the Gulf, migrate to their freshwater nurseries in the summer, and return to the Gulf when temperatures drop in the fall. So do juvenile brown and white shrimp. Migratory birds rest on Louisiana’s barrier islands on their annual migration from Central and South America. Waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds colonize its freshwater marshes, attracted by their diverse menu of fish and shellfish, broad-leaved plants, tall grasses, and shrubs. The marshes provide habitat for the endangered brown pelican and seventy pairs of bald eagles. Furbears–nutria, muskrat, mink, raccoon, otter, bobcat, beaver, coyote, and opossum–thrive in the marshlands. The American alligator–once endangered, now abundant–nests along the banks of coastal freshwater marshes.

“Louisiana’s commercial fishermen harvest 1.1 billion pounds of fish and shellfish including shrimp, crabs, crayfish, oysters, and finfish, up to twenty percent of the nation’s catch, valued at $2.2 billion a year to Louisiana’s economy. Recreational anglers contribute $944 million. More than forty percent of the nation’s fur harvest comes from Louisiana. Louisiana’s alligator farmers take eggs from the wild, hatch them in captivity, return some to the wild, and harvest the rest, netting $9.3 million in skin and meat.

“Louisiana’s three million acres of coastal wetlands are more productive than many agricultural lands, and they are disappearing at the rate of twenty-five to thirty-five square miles a year. If the loss continues at that rate, commercial and recreational fish would decline by 30%, putting up to 70,000 jobs at risk state-wide. Migratory birds dependent on the marshes might decline, having an impact on the rest of the country, on duck hunters, on bird watchers. Fur trappers would see the loss of a $1.3 million industry. The cost of treating drinking water would rise, along with the cost of salt and other minerals taken from the coast. Alligator meat might once again become a delicacy.”

The Flood of 2011 demonstrated the value of the Mississippi River and Tributaries project in mitigating the severity of a very severe flood. The project was started in the aftermath of the 1927 Flood and is almost complete. It is also as responsible for the  decline of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands as any other factor. Levees extending almost to the mouth of the Mississippi have prevented the river from nourishing the wetland with fresh water and sediment every time it floods. All that water and sediment from last year’s flood was flushed into the Gulf of Mexico, where  it went unused for coastal restoration. But the river and tributaries project is almost finished. The levees are built. The floodways work. The reservoirs on the tributaries that retain floodwater in the uplands until the Mississippi can handle it are done.

The job of the Corps of Engineers in the 21st century should be ecosystem restoration on the Louisiana coast and on the Upper Mississippi, where the work of the 20th century has done so much to destroy wetlands.