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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.

Clean Water Action

A much-anticipated study says separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins to prevent the spread of Asian carp and other invasive species is not only possible, but a natural step toward much-needed action to improve Chicago’s water infrastructure.

Great Lakes environmental groups reacting to the study, released Jan. 31 by the Great Lakes Commission and Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, commended the authors’ factual analysis concluding that separation is possible and that it must include essential upgrades to sewage, flood control and waterborne transportation while preventing the transfer of invasive species.

“The study is unprecedented in its scope and ambition, re-envisioning the Chicago Area Waterways System (CAWS) as a system that not only prevents invasive species from devastating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River and all their tributaries, but also makes sorely-needed improvements to core functions like moving people and goods, managing stormwater and maintaining water quality,” the partner groups said in a statement.

The study refocuses the Great Lakes region on a long-term permanent solution and away from stopgap measures that, on their own, will ultimately fail to stop the Asian carp’s march to Lake Michigan.

The authors note that restoring the natural divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins at Chicago can coordinate with efforts already under way by the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to improve water quality and reduce flooding.

The marauding bighead and silver carp are the poster fish for the ecological and economic havoc in the offing when invading species travel between the Great Lakes and Mississippi. Research estimates that the annual cost to the Great Lakes region from invasive species introduced by shipping is upwards of $200 million per year.

"Tens of thousands of constituents have spoken to their members of Congress through a postcard campaign asking for immediate action to stop the Asian carp,” said Cheryl Mendoza, associate director for Freshwater Future. “This study provides decision makers with the path to the permanent solution Great Lakes citizens have been asking for."

Since 2009, multiple hits of Asian carp DNA have been found lakeward of an electric barrier in the CAWS meant to keep the fish out of Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes. More recently, carp DNA has been reported in waters open to Lake Michigan.

Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says the study is the most specific evaluation to date of what it would take to achieve hydrologic separation at the CAWS. “Chicago and Illinois have been under a spotlight as the carp close in on Lake Michigan,” says Brammeier. “This report shines that light in a new direction—toward the transformation of the Chicago waterway into a resource of which everyone in the city, the state and the country can be proud.”

Since 2008, environmentalists have called for separating the artificially conjoined Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins—the only permanent solution on the table and one that has come to be embraced by states, cities and members of Congress alike.

“Separation is a modern 21st century solution for a 21st century problem,” says Jennifer Nalbone, director of Navigation and Invasive Species for Great Lakes United. “This study points the way to a solution that not only benefits the Great Lakes states, but also Canadian and Mississippi River stakeholders. Most of North America will ecologically and economically benefit from separating the two basins.”

The GLC-GLSLCI study clearly demonstrates that separation is possible, providing detailed background on three separation options that allow elected officials and community leaders to move the discussion to the next level. As any separation is intrinsically tied to the multiple uses of the waterway system, it is imperative the Chicago region be an engaged partner.

“The study has the potential to be a game-changer in the effort to restore and protect the Great Lakes,” says Jeff Skelding, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “It proves we have affordable solutions to the Asian carp crisis that benefit both our environment and economy. This report should put an end to excuse-making and foot-dragging and light a fire under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do its job so the nation can move forward on a solution to protect the Great Lakes and the jobs that depend on them.”

To that end, the partner groups stress that the study is a beginning, not an end, and should not be interpreted as a strict set of policy recommendations. Until separation is complete, they say strong interim protections must be implemented to protect against an Asian carp invasion, and note the study includes such measures within its long-term vision for separation. The groups also urge Congress to pass the Stop Asian Carp Act.

A plodding U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ study of the problem—the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study—could be expedited by incorporating findings from the GLC-GLSLCI study and starting separation planning now, the groups say.

“The study is a revelation. It puts solutions on the table that are both feasible and affordable,” says Marc Smith, senior policy manager with the National Wildlife Federation. “The onus is clearly now on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expedite its own study so the nation can stop talking about ‘if’ a solution is possible, and instead focus on ‘when’ people can be put to work to solve this problem once and for all.”

Thom Cmar, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, concurs. “We have a unique opportunity here because we know the invasion is under way and we know how to stop it.

“Not only can a barrier stop the spread of Asian carp and the rest of the harmful invasives moving on the waterway, it can also help revitalize the festering mess on the Chicago River—but only if we have the political will to act quickly, before it’s too late,” says Cmar, author of a 2010 study examining potential impacts of anti-invasive species barriers on Chicago’s waterways.

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Clean Water Action

A broad coalition of sportsmen, environmentalists and property owners called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR) and other state and federal agencies Dec. 14 to begin the process of securing a permanent solution to stop the northward advance of Asian carp into Minnesota waters.

On Dec. 5, 2011, the locks on the upper Mississippi River closed for the winter months. This yearly routine winter closure provides an opportunity to create both a short and long-term way to keep Asian carp out of Minnesota waters. As an immediate, first solution, the coalition is asking that Lock #1 remain closed after ice-out 2012 until a modified lock operation plan can be put in place as an interim measure. Such a measure might include limited lock hours combined with effective preventative technology to reduce the northward advance of these invaders.

“Last week the locks were closed,” said Irene Jones, river corridor program director of Friends of the Mississippi River. “No carp are moving into the upper Mississippi River. The locks should remain closed until a plan is in place that continues to block the carp’s advance.”

Known to batter boaters and even knock them into the water at the sound of a passing motor, Asian carp are voracious filter feeders that can grow to more than 4 feet long, weigh up to 100 pounds and quickly dominate a body of water by gobbling up the same food that sustains native fish populations.

Earlier this summer, positive eDNA tests of Asian carp were detected in the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix rivers near the Twin Cities. A silver carp was also caught in pool 9 this summer. Further elevating the urgency of this crisis, on Dec. 8, MN DNR officials announced that positive eDNA samples indicated that silver carp are above and below the Coon Rapids Dam.

“Needless to say we were very disappointed to hear about the eDNA findings that indicate silver carp above the Coon Rapids Dam,” said Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation. “These new findings just put a capitol ‘E’ in Emergency in terms of closing the lock at St. Anthony and testing and treating the waters above Minneapolis for a long time,” he added.

In a letter dated Nov. 16, the coalition asked Gov. Mark Dayton to make it a goal of his administration to prevent the introduction and spread of Asian carp in Minnesota waters and beyond to the Dakotas and Canada. Gov. Dayton asked a task force of governmental agencies and a coalition of nongovernmental organizations to put forth recommendations aimed at meeting this goal.

“These fish are threatening Minnesota’s lake districts up to the Red River and Canada,” said Jeff Forrester, executive director of Minnesota Seasonal Recreation Property Owners. “The potential cost in loss of recreation and property values is almost incalculable.”

“Asian carp represent a clear and present danger to Minnesota’s waters and our way of life,” said Marc Smith, senior policy manager with National Wildlife Federation. “We strongly encourage state and federal officials to immediately develop and implement action plans designed to stop carp from further spreading north.”

“This is our chance to show the nation that we can be successful in stopping these invaders,” said Dave Zentner, with the Izaak Walton League.

The coalition plans to present a more detailed action plan to Gov. Dayton Dec. 20. This plan calls for a permanent solution to this crisis and establishes short-term priorities to be enacted before ice-out 2012, mid-term priorities to be completed over the next six to 18 months, and long term priorities for over 18 months.

“The waters of Minnesota could be forever changed but we have the opportunity to put a stop to it now,” said Darrell Gerber, program coordinator at Clean Water Action Minnesota. “It will take resolve but we can’t let failure be an option.”

For more information, click here.

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Coalition Members include—Anglers for Habitat, Audubon Minnesota—National Audubon Society, Clean Water Action, F-M Walleyes Unlimited, Fish and Wildlife Alliance, Friends of the Mississippi River, Izaak Walton League of Minnesota, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Minnesota Coalition of Lake Associations, Minnesota Conservation Federation, Minnesota Seasonal Recreation Property Owners, Mississippi River Fund, National Parks and Conservation Association, National Wildlife Federation, New Ulm Area Sport Fishermen, St. Croix River Association, and Minnesota Trout Unlimited.

Sierra Club

Each year, the Ohio River—which runs through eight eastern states and is the largest stream of the Mississippi River system—is polluted with the highest volume of industrial waste products of any river in the U.S. More than 800 miles of the river are now considered contaminated by mercury, and mercury levels in fish continue to rise.

In the face of these frightening realities, the Ohio River Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) had made plans to put a stop to toxic discharges by 2013—but PPG Industries in West Virginia, a chlorine-manufacturing plant with a history of toxic pollution—is already asking for an exception so they can continue to pollute.1

Tell ORSANCO to deny PPG Industries' request to continue dumping mercury into the Ohio River after 2013.

The Ohio River cannot continue down this dangerous path of pollution. Ten million people rely on the Ohio for their drinking water and more than 3 million children and adults fish, swim and boat in its waters.

Granting PPG Industries an exception sets a dangerous precedent for corporations to bend the rules in order to bolster their bottom lines. It would be a serious setback to efforts to reclaim the river from years of toxic pollution.

Don't let ORSANCO grant PPG Industries a pass to pollute. Send a message to the ORSANCO commissioners now.

After you take action, forward this message to your friends and colleagues.

For more information, click here.

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1. For more on PPG's efforts to seek variance for mercury pollution, click here.

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