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Massive Wetlands Destruction Project Still Pending

Water Protection Network

By George Sorvalis

The Obama Administration is facing mounting pressure to release an environmental analysis that could recommend building the controversial New Madrid Levee, a component of the St. John's Bayou and New Madrid Floodway project in South East Missouri.

The pressure is coming from Missouri’s Sen. Blunt, who has placed a hold on President Obama’s nominee to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Gina McCarthy, until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) publicly releases its newest environmental analysis for the project, called a Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

In Big Oak Tree State Park is a noble cypress stand in a thousand-acre bottomland hardwood forest in the New Madrid Floodway. The USACE proposal to close the gap would damage 75,000 acres of productive floodplain habitat while putting Cairo at greater risk of flooding.

The public release of the analysis has been delayed due to major differences between the USACE and the resource agencies (like EPA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) over the number of wetlands impacted and the adequacy of the mitigation plan to offset those impacts.  

While Missouri landowners who farm in the New Madrid Floodway want to see this project move forward, pubic officials in Illinois and Kentucky (who fear the New Madrid Levee will complicate federal flood response) and environmentalists (who fear the New Madrid Levee will collapse the fishery of the Middle Mississippi River) are urging the Obama Administration to put an end to the project once and for all.

The New Madrid Floodway

The USACE has built thousands of miles of flood control levees on the Mississippi River. It has also built a few floodways—areas where the USACE diverts floodwaters to take pressure off of its levees. Shaded in red here is the New Madrid Floodway. The levees that surround the floodway, shown in red, are 60 feet high and totally surround the New Madrid Floodway, except for a quarter-mile gap at New Madrid. This quarter mile gap is the yellow "Outflow" line on the map. The most controversial element of the St. Johns Bayou New Madrid Floodway Project is a new proposed levee, come to be known as the New Madrid Levee, to close that quarter-mile gap.

Closing the Gap Will Increase Flooding Risk

Closing this gap with the proposed New Madrid Levee will increase the flooding threats to a dozen riverside towns by encouraging more agribusiness and development in the New Madrid Floodway, thereby discouraging its use. Throughout history, the USACE has faced significant obstacles when it tries to activate the New Madrid Floodway, and the new levee will only add another obstacle.

To activate the New Madrid Floodway, the USACE fills in pre-drilled holes in the existing levees with explosives and literally explodes the levee at Birds Point, just south of Cairo, IL. The water flowing into the floodway then relieves pressure on the entire flood control system, and reduces flood heights regionally in Cairo and other nearby towns.

In 1937, the first time the USACE used the floodway, it had to call in the National Guard to fend off armed Missouri floodway farmers, even though the federal government has compensated floodway landowners by purchasing flowage easement to flood their farmland. In 1983, when the USACE was preparing to use the floodway, Missouri floodway farmers sued and the judge issued an order preventing the USACE from using the floodway until April of the following year. Fortunately floodway activation levels were never reached. But during the great Mississippi River Flood of 2011, activation levels were reached, then surpassed before the Corps activated the floodway. While Cairo and other towns that were under mandatory evacuation orders saw flood heights start rapidly lowering, the Len Small Levee protecting the City of Olive Brach breached before the Corps activated the floodway, destroying 50 homes and causing millions in damages.

Cairo, IL, Paducah, KY, and Sikeston, MO, are some of the towns that will face greater flooding risks if the USACE builds the New Madrid Levee. According to the Corps’ 2006 Environmental Analysis, “Non-operation of the floodway during project flood conditions means that many citizens outside the floodway would not be provided the level of flood protection that they are authorized to have by law.” The USACE models show higher river stages as far as 40 miles up the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, with those towns experiencing “overtopping of floodwalls and/or levees and flooding.” Hickman, KY, will see an additional 3.9 feet; Cairo an additional 4.6 feet and Paducah, KY, an additional 1.8 feet of flooding.

As flood waters were rising in the Spring of 2011, on behalf of Missouri floodway farmers, the State of Missouri filed a restraining order to prevent the USACE from using floodway, and the federal judge heard the case on April 28.  On April 29, the federal court denied the order and Missouri appealed.  On April 30, the 8th Circuit Appellate Court also denied Missouri’s restraining order before Missouri appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. All the while floodwaters are rising.  On May 1, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the restraining order and the USACE was "cleared" to use the floodway, but it was too late for Olive Branch—the Len Small Levee had breached, sending floodwaters to inundate the town.

The flooding of Olive Branch, MO.

According to Illinois Department of Natural Resources Flood of 2011 Alexander County Flood Damage Reduction Study, “If the floodway had been activated prior to a stage of 61 feet, millions of dollars in flood damages could have been avoided, including the damage to the Len Small Levee, excessive seepage in Cairo and direct flood damages in unprotected Alexander County.”  In total, 50 homes were completely lost and the community is currently working with Federal Emergency Management Agency on a community-scale buy out and relocation.

Public Officials Oppose New Madrid Levee

Due to the increased flooding threat the New Madrid Levee would bring to river communities in the region, pubic officials are speaking out against the project.

Cairo Mayor Coleman testified April 8 at the Mississippi River Commission Public Meeting in Cape Girardeau, MO. He stated:

By building the New Madrid Levee we are inviting more development to occur in the New Madrid Floodway, which will undoubtedly make it harder for the Commission to use the floodway in future floods, putting our town and others at greater risk of catastrophic flooding.

Other public officials have also written in opposition.

In a 2012 letter, Michael Caldwell, the chairman of Alexander County Board of Commissioners wrote:

I urge you to do everything you can to ensure that this project is stopped for good and that the basic safety needs of Alexander County, the City of Cairo, and surrounding communities are prioritized over a levee closure to benefit a few wealthy landowners.

In a 2012 letter, Monte Russell, the chairman of Pulanski County Board of Commissioners, wrote:

This federally funded Corps of Engineers project jeopardizes the safety of our community by increasing our risk of catastrophic flooding.

In a 2012 letter, Sam Johnson, mayor of Mound City, IL, wrote:

Federal flood damage reduction investments in the region should instead focus on protecting people and recognize the critical value and function of the New Madrid Floodway in doing just that.

In a 2012 letter, Wayman A. Butler, junior mayor of City of Mounds, IL, wrote:

Use of the New Madrid Floodway saved our community from catastrophic flooding during last spring’s flooding along the Mississippi River.

In a 2012 letter, David Willis, chairman of the Len Small Drainage & Levee District wrote:

This project would trade away our town’s safety to allow large landowners to intensify agricultural production and development behind the new levee, within the New Madrid Floodway in Missouri.

Environmental Impacts

Thanks to the thousands of miles of levees on the Mississippi River, that quarter-mile gap represents the last significant connection the Mississippi River has to its floodplain in the whole state of Missouri and for hundreds of miles. This connection is absolutely critical to sustaining the fish population of the Mississippi River. During high water, the bottom portion of the New Madrid Floodway floods and fish enter the floodway. When the water recedes, thousands of acres of ponds remain, creating a tapestry of fish nurseries where fish can grow where the water is warmer, calmer and shallower than the cold swift currents of the mighty Mississippi. Closing the gap will eliminate this habitat and likely lead to a collapse of the fishery of the entire Middle Mississippi River.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2000 Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act Report:

The Service opposes the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway alternative because it would cause substantial, irretrievable losses of nationally significant fish and wildlife resources, and greatly diminish rare and unique habitats found in southeast Missouri.

A 2011 email from EPA’s Region 7 Watershed Planning & Implementation Branch Manager said:

[It] could potentially have the largest negative impact on wetlands and streams of any project ever proposed in Region 7.

Even the USACE's own Independent Review Panel concluded in its 2011 Final External Peer Review Report that “the loss of this last remaining connection and its ecosystem functioning would be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ in terms of the total cumulative impact to the natural ecosystem.”

A 2011 letter from the U.S. Department of Interior to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works asserts that the project is not in our national interest and should be abandoned: 

The primary project purpose is to reduce flooding for the intensification and diversification of agriculture production, which comprises 90 percent of the project's economic benefits. Improving agriculture production is an important value, but it does not depend on draining wetlands and severing the river-floodplain connection... Unless the purpose and alternatives for the New Madrid project have changed since the last evaluation, the Department does not believe it is in the public interest to engage in yet more environmental analysis of this project.

The EPA estimated about 45,000 acres of wetlands impacts, in sharp contrast to the 6,000 acres the USACE asserts. Putting this into context with other projects—if you take the annual average amount of permitted wetlands losses, then double that number, you still would not reach the number of wetlands this project would destroy. Based on this one statistic alone, this project should not be permitted to move forward.

Economic Impacts

Investing millions of tax dollars to build a levee, to protect an area designed to be intentionally flooded, just does not make sense. In this era of austerity, newspapers have been quick to pick up on how wasteful a project this is:

According to an article in the The Washington Post, "A Watery waste of Taxpayers’ Money":

They want the federal government to spend taxpayer money encouraging economic activity in a zone it is obligated to flood during high-water events.

According to a letter to the editor from from the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, "New Madrid Levee Project Would Misuse Tax Money," published in the St. Louis Dispatch:

We think the best resolution is no project, or one focused on protecting homes and schools. A more focused project could be accomplished at a fraction of the cost, and would not sever the Mississippi River from its floodplain in Missouri, destroying 50,000 acres of wetlands.

According to a 2002 email from the USACE Legislative Management Chief:

[The project is] an economic dud with huge environmental consequences.

And according to a 2000 email from a recently retired USACE employee:

You just can’t find enough economic justification to build the essential parts of the project, let alone pay a reasonable amount of mitigation of the environmental losses.

Project Status

In 2007, a Federal District Judge threw out the USACE environmental analysis for being out of compliance with environmental laws and actually ordered the USACE to remove project features that it had already constructed. The judge stated in his opinion, “The Corps of Engineers has resorted to arbitrary and capricious reasoning—manipulating models and changing definitions where necessary—to make this project seem compliant with the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it is not.”

Today, the USACE is on the verge of releasing to the public its "revised" analysis, but is in dispute with the EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service on the number of wetlands impacted and the adequacy of the project’s mitigation plan to offset the environmental damage. Apparently frustrated by the delay this dispute is causing, Sen. Blunt (R-MO) is pressuring the USACE to release the revised study by placing a hold on President Obama’s nominee to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy. Sen. Blunt has stated publicly that he simply wants resolution and for the agencies to stop arguing among themselves over the facts surrounding the project. "I'm not calling on the Obama Administration to spend a dime, or to build a thing. All these agencies need to do is agree on the facts surrounding a very long-standing project." 

Resolution

The USACE can resolve this dispute immediately by agreeing with the EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service on the wetlands impacts, fish and wildlife impacts, and appropriate mitigation to replace lost wetlands and fish and wildlife habitat. Fully embracing and incorporating this input from the resource agencies will ensure the USACE provides the public with an accurate accounting of the project impacts, something we know the Corps fell far short of accomplishing in their last study that the federal district court threw out in 2007.  

This full accounting of the environmental impacts would likely preclude the levee from being a project feature, but could still allow the USACE to proceed with project elements that provide flood protection for communities in the St. John's Bayou. If agencies agree on the impacts and the process can move forward, Sen. Blunt will have his decision and a fair vote on well qualified leader like Gina McCarthy as EPA Administrator can also move forward. 

It is by no means a perfect situation to have to sacrifice farmland to save towns, but we can't just build our way out of this mess. It may mean giving just a little of the floodplain back to the Mississippi River. We will get a lot back in return.

You can weigh in by signing a petition urging President Obama to stop the New Madrid Levee and call your Senators to insist that they give President Obama the following message: “Mr. President, do not let Senator Blunt’s hold on EPA Nominee Gina McCarthy force you into letting the Corps of Engineers disregard the sound science of EPA and FWS for this project that has such huge environmental and public safety impacts."

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.

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