By Brad Walker, MCE’s Former Rivers Director      Published on August 17, 2015

This is MCE’s response to an August 7, 2015 article in the Southeast Missourian titled Smith adamant floodway project needs to go forward.

First, let’s make it abundantly clear that the New Madrid Floodway (NMF) is a legally designated floodway. That last word “floodway” is immensely important. It means that the floodway is required to be used to lower flooding at the Ohio and Upper Mississippi River confluence. Landowners within the floodway were paid by the government to allow the flooding to occur, except for those at the southern end near a 1,500-foot levee opening because that area naturally floods during high water periods in the Mississippi River.

The 1,500-foot levee gap that Representative Smith complained about still being open in the August 7, 2015 article was intended to always remain open when the New Madrid Floodway was originally designed and constructed in the early 1930’s. The gap serves as a release valve for high water at the confluence. The local landowners’ effort to close it stems from the 1937 flood when the NMF was first used and has always been about stopping the floodway from being used and enriching a small group of people in the process.

The St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway project that would close the levee gap epitomizes 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 a portion of the over $100 million project cost. Talk about welfare!

If the gap is closed, there is no doubt it will cause harm to species that normally thrive in the temporarily flooded southern portion of the NMF. There is no reasonable and viable way to mitigate those losses per conservation and wildlife agencies. But the closing of the gap will also create another change, the intensive development of the southern end of the NMF because of the elimination of the high river backwater flooding, which is a goal of the landowners. They hope/plan to develop to an extent that when the next time the NMF needs to be operated their economic loss will be so great that other areas, outside the NMF, will instead be sacrificed. For those landowners who have stubbornly promoted the project to close the gap this is a perfectly legitimate situation because they have never accepted the current reality of the NMF.

Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway before (left) and after(right) operation in May 2011

In one respect, we do have a level of understanding and sympathy for their position. The operation of the NMF has evolved into a highly violent activity through blowing up the levee with explosives, causing more problems and damage than it should.

Its activation method, which originally depended upon the levee naturally breaching, has never worked as designed and eventually required the formal addition of the explosives to breach the levee. Furthermore, over the last 80+ years the flood stage level at which the NMF is activated has been raised six feet by Congress and the Mississippi River Commission. Because of these decisions it was inevitable that this floodway was going to be controversial. There were not only damages within the NMF from the 2011 operation of the floodway, but millions of dollars of damages in areas outside of the floodway due to the delay in its operation.

Representative Smith’s overly optimistic and possibly disingenuous assertion that we should not worry because the Corps has stated that closing the gap will not “affect the floodway project and how they would activate the levees” is simply naive. After witnessing the State of Missouri’s efforts in 2011 in going to the Supreme Court to try to stop the operation of the NMF and landowners’ plans to increase development within the NMF if the gap is closed our concerns regarding the floodway project have only increased.

Instead of paying to close the gap and likely increasing damages when the next inevitable operation of the NMF is necessary (though not assured to actually happen), we should be using those funds to help pay for redesigning the operation and modifying the NMF. That new design should be based upon a natural overflowing weir within the levee that is activated by the river level, not by a bureaucratic decision to blow up the levee that can be challenged in court. The Corps has the knowledge of this method, which has been successfully used by them elsewhere.