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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.

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.

New Madrid Floodway–The Landscape

Update, Wednesday, May 4, 2001: The Nature Conservancy has an interesting and informative blog post on the New Madrid Floodway, its history and its purpose.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a series of articles this morning on the people who live in the floodway and lost this year’s crop and on the people of Cairo, Illinois.

Monday night the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew the Bird’s Point levee and released the flooded Mississippi into the New Madrid Floodway to protect Cairo and other cities along the river in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Wheat fields surround Big Oak Tree State Park

Within the 132,000 acres that comprise the New Madred Floodway, there are two refuges–the Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area and Big Oak Tree State Park, a National Natural Landmark. The rest is valuable farmland. It is all a part of what Missourians call Swampeast, which produces 25 to 30% of Missouri’s cash crop per year both inside and outside the floodway. Some of that will be lost to farmers who will see this year’s crop washed away now that the Corps of Engineers have blown the Bird’s Point Levee. And the torrent of water will tear up the land, at least at the break point and maybe further inland.

Big Oak Tree State Park and, to a lesser extent, Ten Mile Pond are the remnants of the Great Swamp that once covered Swampeast and the Missouri Bootheel and extended clear south into Arkansas. The swamp was logged and drained for agriculture at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area

The Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area–a mix of wetlands, grasslands, forests, and fields–lies within the New Madrid Floodway about five miles southeast of East Prairie and ten miles north of Big Oak Tree State Park. Most of the rest of the floodway is the fragmented remains of the Great Swamp, patchy corridors for the movement of wildlife between the two refuges, lost between vast fields of cotton, rice, and soybeans. Ten Mile Pond is tiny: 3,754 acres, a destination for bird watchers who come for eagles, mallards, ring-necked ducks, and shorebirds; anglers who come for catfish, crappie, bass, and sunfish; and hunters who come for doves, quail, and waterfowl. Since 1982 the department has worked to restore 1,200 acres of wetland habitat to a region drained for agriculture. Resource managers manipulate its ponds for moist soil management to provide millets, smartweed, sprangletop, sedges, pigweeds, and invertebrates for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. They raise row crops and browse for geese and field-feeding ducks, and set aside 150 acres of sunflowers for doves.

Ducks Unlimited took on a wetland acquisition and development project to restore 800 additional acres of wetlands close-by as a priority wintering habitat in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.[i]

Ten Mile Pond is dependent on rainwater to refresh its wetlands. Big Oak Tree State Park gets river water when the Mississippi backs up into the New Madrid Floodway at floodtime.

The 1500-foot gap in the levees for the release of floodwater from the New Madrid Floodway. It is also the place where a flooded Mississippi backs up into the floodway. Mud Ditch and St. Johns Bayou carry floodwater out of the floodway.

As recently as the 1980s the Mississippi backed up and flooded the lower third of the floodway every tenth or twelfth year, but with evermore water coming down the Mississippi and the Ohio, backup became a yearly occurrence by the turn of the century. When it did occur, it refreshed the wetlands in Big Oak Tree State Park, located near the foot of the floodway and adjacent to the mainline levee.[ii]

Bur Oak, Big Oak Tree State Park

Big Oak Tree State Park is a thousand-acre bottomland hardwood forest, eighty of which are in virgin timber. In 1938 local residents of Mississippi County, Missouri rescued the thousand acres in the 132,000-acre floodway from logging and draining. The park safeguards the largest tract of uncut bottomland hardwood forest in Swampeast, where once more than two million acres stood. There are nine state and national champion trees, each with a canopy 120 feet tall.

The swamp provides habitat to 150 species of birds, forty-four species of fishes, and thirty-one species of reptiles. The National Park Service designated Big Oak a National Natural Landmark in 1986.

A 2005 survey of the what trees grew where in the park broke communities into four zones: Below 290 feet above sea level, the cypress and shrub swamp, 583 acres, is flooded throughout the year except in cases of extreme drought. Between 290 and 291 feet, stands of cypress and hardwood or cypress and cottonwood, 193 acres, are flooded most of the growing season most years. Between 291 and 292 feet, stands of overcup oak, sweetgum, red maples, green ash, and sugarberry are seasonally flooded, particularly early in the growing season. Above 292 feet stands of bottomland hardwoods are temporarily flooded every eleven to fifty years out of a hundred.

The network of drainage channels that make farming in the New Madrid Floodway possible have dehydrated the wetlands in the park, stressing them, but when the river floods, the park gets new water.


[i] U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District, Revised Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement Number 2 for the St. Johns Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project, December 2005, viii, http://www.mvm.usace.army.mil/StJohns/Studies/sjnm_Final.pdf;

Missouri Department of Conservation, “Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area, http://mdc.mo.gov/documents/area_brochures/8241.pdf ; Ducks Unlimited, Southern Regional Office, “Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area Wetland Acquisition and Development, http://southern.ducks.org/ten_mile_pond.php.

[ii] Ganey, Terry, “Environmental groups target federal plan to complete levee system, inundate farmland,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 28, 1999, A1; U.S. National Park Service, National Natural Landmark Program, “Missouri: Big Oak Tree,” http://www.nature.nps.gov/Sec8_99/individ_sites?MO_BigOakTree.htm.”