The Corps of Engineers, nudged along by Missouri politicians, is pursuing a flood control project called the St. John’s Bayou – New Madrid Floodway project, severing the Mississippi River from one of its last remaining connection to its natural floodplain in Missouri with a 1,500 foot levee. The floodway relieves pressure on the River by lowering the flood height, thereby protecting communities downstream and replenishing valuable soil, wetlands, and habitat.
Near the Bootheel is an area shown on maps as the New Madrid Floodway. The area was designated a Floodway since the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, which flooded 27,000 square miles and left over half a million people homeless and killed 246 people. This designation has a specific meaning. If necessary, the Corps of Engineers can legally divert floodwater through the floodway to relieve pressure on the river with the intent of lowering the flood height and reducing damage along the river. There are good reasons why this area in the Bootheel was selected. It is at the confluence of the UMR and the Ohio River and part of the historic floodplain called the Great Swamp. The 2.5 million acres of wetland forests has been almost completely drained and cut off from the river by large levees except for about 1,500 feet at the south end near the town of New Madrid – one of the few sections of the river’s floodplain still connected to the river.
Closing the New Madrid Floodway gap would epitomize special interest influence in this country. It is a project with limited economic value – specifically focused exclusively on a very small group of farm families, including the family of one of the Mississippi River Commissioners – R.D. James, who farm in the southern end of the legally designated floodway. Unlike most water resources projects approved by Congress, this group will not even have to provide any money to cover the $100 million cost of the New Madrid portion of the project.
“This is a civil rights issue," said said Richard Grisby, the president of the Alexander/Pulaski, IL branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). "The federal government is proposing to spend $165 million taxpayer dollars to put largely African-American communities at risk.” The City of Cairo, Illinois is one of the communities protected by allowing the river to flood the legally designated floodway. Closing it will threaten these communities, just as it did in 2011 when the state of Missouri, at the behest of landowners in the floodway, sued to keep the floodway closed.
The Corps of Engineers is working on a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for this project, its 7th attempt to close the levee.
Although it purports to be a flood protection project for a small town called East Prairie, the project is primarily being pursued to protect farmland owned by a small number of landowners within the New Madrid Floodway. Focusing on East Prairie provides some community development “spin”, diverting attention from the true beneficiaries. The project actually contains two parts, first a flood control portion for the St. Johns Bayou area and East Prairie. Second the closing of the levee at the end of the New Madrid Floodway. They are separate projects because East Prairie is not located in the Floodway; its flooding is typically caused by water from outside of the floodway. Though people living in East Prairie who also farm within the Floodway would benefit by the levee closure. The levee closure portion of the project is designed to control Mississippi River backwater flooding into the Floodway that may occur every two years or so,however. But it would do nothing to curtail the level of flooding which occurred in 2011, or even a 50-year flood event. The project selected has a questionable Benefit-Cost ratio of about 2.1 and creates large environmental concerns resulting in a bad deal for taxpayers, although providing the most benefits to the Floodway farmers. The local cost share for the St. Johns Bayou portion is being funded through the USDA with Federal community development taxpayer dollars, so those benefiting will have no cost obligation what-so-ever.
The Mississippi River Commission (MRC) was established in 1879 by Congress and given a mission to "develop plans to improve the condition of the Mississippi River, foster navigation, promote commerce, and prevent destructive floods" on the Mississippi River. The operation of the New Madrid Floodway is part of that mission. As was mentioned above, a major landowner in New Madrid with considerable opportunity to lobby for this project is a longstanding member of the MRC .
MCE works with a number of allies who oppose the St. Jonh's Bayou New Madrid Floodway project. These organizations include:
- American Rivers
- Bluestem Communications
- Great Rivers Environmental Law Center (MO)
- Kentucky Waterways Alliance
- Missouri Parks Association
- National Wildlife Federation
- Northwest Environmental Advoactes
- Praire Rivers Network (IL)
- Sierra Club - Illinois and Missouri Chapters
- Missouri Stream Team.
#StoptheLevee Social Media Campaign
MCE collaborated with these allies to develop a social media campaign to raise awareness about the New Madrid Floodway project using the hashtag #StoptheLevee in social media communications. Join the conversation and enocurage decision makers to Stop the Levee. Tweet at your legislator using their handle and make sure to add #StoptheLevee.