Apparently, When it’s in Missouri!

By Brad Walker, Former MCE Rivers Director        Published on August 12, 2015

Before Americans began to drain the river bottoms for farmland in the early 1900s, the wetlands connected to the Mississippi River were incredibly biodiverse. Bottomlands all along the river flooded on a regular basis, leaving behind nutrient-rich silt and soil perfect for farming. We have continued to cut off land from the river ecosystem with levees all along the Mississippi River to the point that in Missouri, we have only a tiny remnant left – and this remnant is the New Madrid Floodway. If the current plan for this floodway goes forward, these important and valuable wetlands would be lost.

As this article will show, the current plan for the floodway is one of those Corps projects that should have never received serious consideration and needs to be formally de-authorized by Congress or vetoed by the EPA. The current method of operating the floodway is ridiculously dangerous, damaging, and expensive, and all of these concerns are exacerbated by a 6-foot increase in its flood stage operation level. The process for operating the floodway is vulnerable to legal and political interventions that have caused delay and can increase damages.

This article calls for a much more benign and non-controversial method to be designed and constructed, a method that takes the decision of floodway operation out of the hands of politicians, bureaucrats, and judges and into the control of the river hydrology.

History of the SJBNMFP

Figure 1: Typical Levee Cross Section Source: USACE

My personal history regarding the St. Johns Bayou & New Madrid Floodway project (SJBNMFP for you acronymlovers) spans just about eight years. For nearly any other project that would be a long time. For the SJBNMFP eight years is just a blip. It requires a lot of political sway to spawn so many versions of such an unwarranted project. For those of you who do not know the evolution of this 60-year-old money pit, I will provide some historical background.

 The 1927 Flood

A deadly Mississippi River flood occurred in 1927, covering about 27,000 square miles of land along the lower Mississippi River and severely impacting 700,000 people. It was considered the record flood for the Mississippi River at the time. This event prompted Congress to pass the Flood Control Act of 1928 that created the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, which authorized the construction of a system of “floodways, spillways or diversion channels” to reduce the impact of future floods on the southern portion of the Mississippi River starting at Cairo, IL, and was designed to pass a flood even larger than the 1927 flood at 2.36 million cubic feet per second.

The Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway

Figure 2: Map of Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway Drafted by Shawn Edghill

One of these new floodways, called the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway (BP-NMF), was built within the eastern area of the Missouri Bootheel at the confluence of the Ohio and Upper Mississippi Rivers. It was a 133,000 acre area surrounded by levees, completed by the Corps in 1933. The Corps were required to purchase flowage easements from most of the landowners within the BP-NMF except from landowners in the southern portion near the floodway outlet at the town of New Madrid, which is a 1,500-foot opening in the surrounding levee (See Figure 2 or 3). This opening was intentionally incorporated into the design to allow backwater flooding into the floodway during normal rises of the river and also to allow rainwater to escape the area. The area has often flooded from Mississippi River backwater events.

Within the front line levee along the river, sections were to be lowered to allow flood water to overtop the levee in these sections. The levee is then supposed to degrade and create a crevasse for the water to flow into the floodway. These lowered sections are called fuse plugs. The floodway, along with its fuse plugs, was designed to operate when the flood stage elevation reached 55 feet at the river gauge near Cairo, IL.

The 1937 Flood

In 1937 another major flood occurred that was likely even larger than the 1927 flood. In 1937, the fuse plugs had not been constructed because some landowners had not yet sold the flowage easements needed to start construction. Ultimately, the fuse plugs failed to function as designed. The Corps efforts to hand-excavate the lowered sections during the flood failed to create the expected crevassing, and this forced the Corps to use explosives to create the crevasse and allow floodwaters into the floodway. Floodway landowners strongly opposed this, requiring the National Guard to protect the Corps personnel attempting to operate the floodway.

1940s – 1960s

During the 1930’s and 1940’s, most of the landowners within the New Madrid Floodway were paid for the right to flood their land by the government when the floodway was activated. Landowners near the open gap at the southern end were not, since their land would be subject to natural backwater flooding each year.

The required easements were finally purchased by 1942, allowing the Corps to construct the fuse plugs.

Despite knowing that they worked and lived within a legally designated floodway, New Madrid Floodway landowners continued to develop land there and eventually successfully lobbied for a project to close the 1,500-foot opening in the levee at New Madrid (See close-up in Figure 3). In the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1954, Congress authorized this project (estimated to cost $1.74 million), but due to later legal challenges the gap in the levee is still there today.

In the Flood Control Act of 1965, the floodway operation flood stage was raised three feet to 58 feet at

Figure 3: Map showing the gap in the levee to the right of New Madrid Source: Quinta Scott

Cairo, at an estimated cost of $189 million for the construction of higher levees. The  Mississippi River Commission (discussed in greater detail later) then modified the operation plan further by raising the front line levee elevation to 62.5 feet and the fuse plug degrade sections to 60.5 feet (See Figure 4). Operation of the floodways was to occur before the river reaches 61 feet at Cairo, as early as at 58 feet if damage is occurring to other levees. These operation alterations, which raised the original design operation flood stage by 6 feet, were done to provide more flood protection for those property owners within the BP-NMF, not to provide more flood protection to those outside the floodway in Illinois, Kentucky or even Missouri, who were originally intended to benefit from the operation of the BP-NMF.

1986 – 2007

Since its original Congressional authorization in 1954, which contained only the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway portion of the project, the SJBNMFP has been repackaged several times by the Corps. In 1986 the St. Johns Bayou portion was added. Congress authorized construction funds for the second most recent version of the design, which included closing the gap and building pump stations at locations near New Madrid and St. Johns Bayou, and the Corps began to perform some site construction. In 2004, the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) filed a lawsuit, which resulted in a federal judge ruling in 2007 that halted the project and directed that all existing project construction be removed and the land returned to its pre-construction state.

Figure 4: Levees and Fuse Plugs Locations and Cairo Gauge Elevations Source: USACE-MRC

 The 2011 Flood

During the 2011 Mississippi River flood the New Madrid Floodway was operated for the second time, though not without considerable political and legal gyrations by the State of Missouri to stop the operation. The Corps finally operated it through explosive detonation of the levee on May 2, 2011 (See Figure 5) with the water level at the Cairo gauge at 61.7 feet – a full 8 inches above the mandated maximum level for operation. The violent operation of the floodway again caused significant damage within the floodway, but the delay in operation caused at least $10 million in damage within Illinois. No fewer than 25 landowners from within the New Madrid Floodway have sued the Corps for millions of dollars in damages to their land and property within the legally designated floodway, which they claim are the responsibility of the Corps.

Figure 5: Blowing BPNMF Levee Source: David Carson-St. Louis Post-Dispatch-AP, 5-11.

The lawsuit is still pending, though one count was dismissed in 2012. It’s important to point out that if the courts rule against the Corps, it is the U.S. taxpayer who will actually pay the bill.

 2013 – Today

In 2013 the Corps released yet another version of the design of the SJBNMFP, including another Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). By this time, the project price had ballooned to about $165 million, nearly $107 million for the New Madrid Floodway portion. Thousands of comments on the DEIS were provided to the Corps by many environmental organizations, as well as individuals who oppose the project. A review of the economic section of the DEIS by an ex-Corps economist and submitted to the Corps within the National Wildlife Federation’s extensive comments on the DEIS in November 2013, concludes with this summation:

The economic analysis in the DEIS lacks the scope, data, detail, quality of execution and quality of presentation required to support such an important and controversial public policy decision involving

the commitment of between $58 and $180 million of scarce resources (depending on the alternative implemented) with such potentially large environmental consequences. The analysis relies on arbitrary assumptions. Important specific and significant project-area supporting data is lacking. In many instances the descriptions of the analytical methodologies employed are insufficient to determine what was actually done, in other instances no descriptions of employed methodologies are provided at all, in still other instances, the employed methodologies appear questionable at best. Further, the economic analysis is fraught with both demonstrable and apparent errors. The results of the 2013 DEIS Economic Analysis should not be used as a basis for any public policy decision.

In February 2015 an Independent Expert Review Panel (IERP) reviewed the Final EIS, providing their extensive comments in a published report. The review was far from favorable. The review panel provided a rating of the significance of each of their comment. A breakdown of the panel comments categorized from the most significant to the least significant is shown in Table 1 below.

High 1
Medium High 13
Medium 6
Medium Low 3
Low 3
The comment rated as most significant pertained to the economic analysis, which relates directly to the entire justification for the project. The comment states:

The adequacy and acceptability of the economic analysis and projections cannot be determined because sufficient information regarding agricultural economic modeling has not been provided. Independent Expert Review Panel

The IERP’s economic review is consistent with the comments submitted by NWF in 2013, the project economic analysis is very questionable and inadequate to justify the $165 million public investment. Assuming just a 25 percent local cost share required for these types of projects, about $41 million total and over $26 million for the New Madrid portion has essentially been waived for the SJBNMFP because a federal grant is being used to pay the cost share. So not only are the project benefits not going to the U.S. taxpayer, we are paying the local cost share as well.

The Corps is currently finalizing the Final EIS for the project and has advised it will be released in late July or August of 2015. The public will again have at least a 30 day period to provide comments on the project.

Current conditions at New Madrid

The 1,500-foot gap at the bottom of New Madrid Floodway has remained open as designed since the early 1930’s to allow water to backflow into the floodway when the Mississippi River runs high in the spring. The backwater area creates a significant and important wetlands area for fish and birds, just a tiny remnant of the 2.5 million acres of forested wetlands that originally existed in the southeastern Missouri Bootheel – and essentially Missouri’s only remnant of those wetlands that is still connected to the Mississippi River.

The area of backwater flooding into the floodway varies depending upon the level of the river and inundates up to 75,000 acres each year. Most of this flooded land is used to grow commodity crops – soybeans and corn. During high water years, planting is delayed on a portion of the land in the floodway while farmers wait for the river to recede. The land that is periodically inundated still receives the benefits of nutrients and sediment from the river, which created that land’s productive soil, unlike the remainder of the region’s land isolated completely behind levees.

Reasons for not building the SJBNMFP

The SJBNMFP is one of those Corps projects that should have never received serious consideration and needs to be formally de-authorized by Congress or vetoed by the EPA.  There are at least five very good reasons to abandon the SJBNMFP, which we list below.

  1. Important and valuable wetlands would be lost.

As was mentioned above, the last section of floodplain open to the Mississippi River in Missouri would be closed. The backwater flooding into the BP-NMF that creates the temporary wetlands would be eliminated by the closing of the levee.

Within the 2013 DEIS (Table 1.1 on page 6), the Corps provided flood frequency estimates correlated with the numbers of acres flooded within the New Madrid Floodway. The table indicates that about 50 percent of the time (2-year flood) nearly 33,400 acres of the New Madrid Floodway is flooded. Nearly 59,000 acres is flooded during a 5-year flood. A 10-year flood would result in about 71,000 acres inundated. These estimated flooded acres represent the wetlands habitat that would be lost with the closing of the 1,500-foot gap.

  1. The public paid for flowage easements in the New Madrid Floodway to allow this legally designated floodway to be operated when necessary.

The Corps obtained and paid for the flowage easements from landowners on about 84 percent of the acres within the New Madrid Floodway, which allows the Corps to inundate their land when the floodway is operated. The taxpayers paid for that right, along with the construction of the Bird’s Point – New Madrid Floodway and its levees, and have a reasonable expectation that the right to flood the floodway will remain in effect.

Congress, the Mississippi River Commission, and the Corps have spent considerable effort and additional taxpayer money altering, and attempting to alter, the original criteria and conditions for operating the floodway, to the detriment of landowners and residents outside the floodway. The changes include raising the original flood stage operation level by at least 6 feet at the Cairo gauge and pursuing the construction of the SJBNMFP in order to close the 1,500-foot gap.

The raising of the flood stage was motivated by pressure from the floodway landowners and should not have occurred. Closing the 1,500-foot gap would put more pressure on the levees protecting other Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri communities by raising the level of the river – the water that would no longer flood the bottom of the Bird’s Point –New Madrid Floodway.

  1. The SJBNMFP has no significant public benefit.

The entire Bird’s Point –New Madrid Floodway portion of the benefits goes to a small number of landowners/farmers who farm in the floodway; those benefits are estimated to come from the intensification of agricultural production in the floodway. The Corps’ economic analysis for the agricultural benefits of the project has been sharply questioned by an ex-Corps economist and the Independent Review Panel.

These farmers are not paying a cost share for the project, which for other projects is typically between 25% to 35% of the project cost. If this project continues, the taxpayers will end up further supplementing the project cost by paying the local share.

Just for the nearly $107 million BP-NMF portion of the project, the cost per farm family is over $1 million (assuming 100 families would benefit – though the actual number of families benefiting is likely significantly smaller). This project sets a terrible precedent for the public paying to improve private profits for a very small group of people while the public receives no direct benefit from their investment. To put this into perspective, if the government decided to provide $1 million in “economic development” for every American family it would cost us $100 trillion – more than the entire world gross domestic product.

  1. The completion of the SJBNMFP could cause further delay of the operation of the New Madrid Floodway when a dangerous flood occurs.

The first actual delay occurred in 1937 when a massive flood hit the Mississippi River. Landowners from Southeast Missouri brandishing weapons protested the impending operation, requiring the Missouri governor to call in the Missouri National Guard. This allowed the Corps to complete the operation. The fuse plugs within the levee did not degrade as designed, so explosives had to be used to breach the levee.

Since the 1937 Mississippi River flood, there have been at least five additional floods that might have required the operation of BP-NMF had the original 1928 flood stage elevation of 55 feet at Cairo remained in effect.

As mentioned in Item 2 above, there have been major alterations to the operation of the Bird’s Point –New Madrid Floodway over the decades in order to avoid flooding the legally designated floodway. This includes an elaborate system of pipes within sections of the levee to hold liquid explosives to breach the levee. The raising of the floodway operation flood stage at Cairo is a major change that essentially delays flood pressure relief. The several times the river flood stage has exceeded the original 55 feet operation level placed additional risk on communities outside of the BP-NMF.

In 2011, the lawsuit and the need for the Corps to wait to the very last moment to make a decision delayed the operation of the BP-NMF, which resulted in damages in Illinois that should have been avoided. These costs will be paid by the taxpayers.

The completion of the SJBNMFP, and the expected development that would follow within the Bird’s Point –New Madrid Floodway, could be the tipping point in preventing the operation of the floodway in the future. If the operation is delayed long enough there could be a breach elsewhere that could drop the river level below the mandated Cairo gauge flood stage level, eliminating the need for operation. The landowners within the New Madrid Floodway are spared from damage, but people in other areas might not be.

  1. One of those major beneficiaries of this project has been a member of the Mississippi River Commission for decades.

The Mississippi River Commission (MRC) is an old organization. It was established in 1879 and its mission is clear:

Develop and implement plans to correct, permanently locate, and deepen the channel of the Mississippi River.

Improve and give safety and ease to the navigation thereof.

Prevent destructive floods.

Promote and facilitate commerce, trade, and the postal service.

Its primary duty is “the recommendation of policy and work [regarding] flood control, navigation, and environmental projects on the Mississippi River programs” which allows it, and its individual commissioners, to exert significant influence over the Corps’ Mississippi River project planning and selection.

Mr. R. D. James has been a member of the Commission since 1981. Per his MRC biography, he is “a self-employed farmer and manager of cotton gins and grain elevators for the A.C. Riley Company in New Madrid, Missouri.” His family owns over a thousand acres of land in the Bird’s Point –New Madrid Floodway and would directly benefit from the SJBNMFP. This may help explain why this terrible project keeps being resurrected.

What we should do with the estimated $165 million in funds planned for the SJBNMFP

The current method of operating the SJBNMFP is ridiculously dangerous, damaging, and expensive, with all of these

Figure 6: Eroded farmland in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway (June 1, 2011) Source: Laura Simon

concerns exacerbated by the 6-foot increase in its flood stage operation level (See Figure 6). Its use is based upon flood stage levels at Cairo, IL, but the activation cannot happen without the order of the President of the MRC. A much more benign and non-controversial method needs to be designed and constructed that takes the decision of floodway operation out of the hands of politicians, bureaucrats, and judges and into the control of the river hydrology. Converting the current operation system based upon fuse plugs and/or explosives to a natural overtopping system, very likely with a lower operational flood stage at Cairo (55′), should be authorized and constructed as soon as possible.

Although this suggested scenario is based upon returning to the original Bird’s Point –New Madrid Floodway flood stage level, as a condition for local acceptance a one-time adjustment to the original easement payments should be considered as well.

Specifically this type of system should:

  1. Cost about as much as we spend fixing the mess and paying the damages caused by the current violent explosive method.
  2. Not require a human decision to operate it – avoiding lawsuits and animosity.
  3. Minimize the damage to the floodway because a high head surge system would be eliminated.
  4. Minimize the damage to the surrounding communities that the floodway is intended to protect because the BP-NMF would be activated when the river hit a lower flood stage elevation, reducing stress on levees.

Concurrent with the above proposed change to the BP-NMF, a proper design and adequate funding for flood risk management in East Prairie area should also be pursued, which the current SJBNMFP does not currently include.

Call or email your U.S. Representative and Senator and tell them to oppose the SJBNMFP and support a better way to operate the BP-NMF.