For a few months now, we have been keeping an eye on an issue down in western Kentucky. If you live down there, you probably know about it–the St. John’s Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project. I know–long title. But the length of the title equates to how important the project is to the Mississippi River, to wetland habitat along the Mississippi, and to preventing flooding impacts in western Kentucky river towns.
Here’s the story. All along the Mississippi River, there are many levees that prevent regular flooding in valuable farmland, and in many cities and towns. Over the years, Congress has authorized the Corps to utilize four specific areas as floodways. These areas are used to provide large floods an escape, which helps to ease the impact of floodwaters to both upstream and downstream areas.
Down in southeastern Missouri, along the Mississippi River, one of these floodways exists, called the New Madrid Floodway (if you’re interested, read more here). The image below shows with the red hatched area the location of the New Madrid Floodway.
Upstream on the Mississippi, at Birds Point, there is an “inflow crevasse” and downstream on the Mississippi, at New Madrid, there is an “outflow crevasse.” This purpose is two-fold. First at the inflow location, the Corps of Engineers can blow a gap in the existing levee in high floods, which allows the floodwaters to then flow into this huge floodplain area. This is what happened in 2011. Alternatively, at the outflow location, the existing gap there allows backwater flooding, even when the inflow crevasse is not breached. When a big flood gets down to New Madrid, the floodwaters will move backwards up into the floodway, and relieve the downstream areas from more significant flooding.
It seems pretty apparent then, that this area/issue is pretty much confined to Missouri…..right?
Well, although the actual project is in Missouri, it has huge impacts to Kentucky, and other states. By allowing this area to flood, it releases flooding pressures upstream, and along the stretch of the Mississippi just across the river from this area. We’re talking about a huge amount of impact to these river towns.
But even worse than the likely flood impacts to Kentucky, this project involves one of the single largest wetland losses of wetlands in the country. How? Well, as I mentioned earlier, because the downstream location at New Madrid has remained open, it allows high floods to naturally flow “backwards” up into the floodway.
As this occurs, the the backwater areas create slow-water habitat for all sorts of aquatics species, and reinvigorate old oxbow lakes and wetlands. In fact, this would result in the functional loss of 50,000+ acres of wetlands. EPA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leaders have suggested not only would this cause substantial and irretrievable losses of nationally significant fish and wildlife resources and habitats, but the Corps themselves have also suggested on multiple occasions that the project is a waste of federal dollars, that it would sever one of the last remaining connections of the river to its floodplain and ecosystem functions, and that it would be very difficult to even pay for the required mitigation of the wetland losses and other environmental losses.
Sounds crazy, right?
Well, after the 2011 floods, and the blowing of the Birds Point levee (the northern or inflow crevasse) into this floodway that resulted in farmland impacts, a number of political interests have attempted to reinvigorate this project. Their intent is to wall it off completely, and allow the floodway acreage to be utilized almost solely for farming and potentially other land development, and to not allow the future use of that floodway for emergency flooding. This would be devastating to many Kentucky towns, and river towns of other states as well.
A number of our partner groups have been working on this issue for a while now, and we’re going to get more involved. There are a few really great resources available, including a recent webinar by George Sorvalis of National Wildlife Federation, and the NWF’s project page on this issue. We are planning to reach out to the Senators of our great Commonwealth, and express the economic irrationality of this project, the likely impacts to western Kentucky’s river towns, the overreach of the Corps of Engineers, and more. Let us know if you are interested in reaching out to our Senators as well, and we’ll do our best to provide an easy opportunity for you to do so!