5 Reasons EPA Should Veto the New Madrid Levee

The Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to levee off a critical flood relief valve on the Mississippi River in the bootheel of Missouri—at a cost to taxpayers of $165 million. The New Madrid Levee is a destructive boondoggle that puts communities at risk while damaging wildlife habitats of national importance. Here are five reasons why the Obama Administration needs to use the Environmental Protection Agency’s veto power authorized in the Clean Water Act to stop this project once and for all:

The rare swamp rabbit is found in the New Madrid Floodway. Its dense fur makes it possible for the rabbit to regularly take to water to escape predators or reach new habitat. (Missouri Department of Conservation)

The rare swamp rabbit is found in the New Madrid Floodway. Its dense fur makes it possible for the rabbit to take to water to escape predators or reach new habitat. Photo: Missouri Department of Conservation

1) The Folly of Preventing a Floodway from Flooding

The New Madrid area was designated as an official floodway in 1928, in the aftermath of the Great Mississippi River Flood. The Army Corps is legally required to release water into the floodway when the Mississippi gets high enough to threaten low-lying communities. The New Madrid Levee might need to be destroyedand then rebuiltwhen the floodway is used for its intended purpose.

2) African-American Communities at Increased Risk

Activating the floodway is already rife with political difficulties. During the record floods of 2011, the State of Missouri sued the Corps to stop the agency from using the floodway. The resulting delay contributed to devastating flooding in Olive Branch, Illinois.  “We could have saved an entire community and avoided millions of dollars in flood damages if the New Madrid floodway had been used earlier during the 2011 flood,” said David Willis, chairman of the Len Small Levee and Drainage District in Olive Branch.We simply can’t afford to make it even harder to use the floodway in the future.” Any further delay would likely have spelled disaster for the heavily African-American city of Cairo, Illinois. Richard Grisby, the president of the Alexander/Pulaski, IL branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) stated, “This is a civil rights issue. The federal government is proposing to spend $165 million taxpayer dollars to put largely African-American communities at risk.”

3) Draining A Vast Area of Vital Wetlands

The project will drain an area of nationally significant wetlands spanning an estimated 50,000 acresan area almost as large as Washington D.C. Many of the wetlands in the project area are bottomland hardwood forests, one of the most diverse and ecologically important habitat types in the country and all the wetlands in the project area are vitally important for fish and wildlife. The Fish and Wildlife Service has argued that cutting these vital wetlands off from the river will  “cause substantial, irretrievable losses of nationally significant fish and wildlife resources, and greatly diminish rare and unique habitats found in southeast Missouri.”

4) Devastating Losses to Fish and Wildlife

Big Oak Tree State Park, which encompasses some of the bottomland hardwood forests in the affected area. Photo: Wikipedia

Big Oak Tree State Park, which encompasses some of the bottomland hardwood forests in the affected area. Photo: Wikipedia

The project would eliminate the last spot in the state of Missouri where the Mississippi River can do what it has done for millenniaseasonally flow into its natural backwater floodplain. This creates and maintains the wetlands that are important for a number of species of fish and wildlife. Studies how that 63 species of reptiles and amphibians, 90 species of fish, and 30 species of freshwater mussels live in the project area. Most of the species of fish in the region use the floodplain for rearing and spawning, or they depend on access to small streams for reproducing. The Missouri Department of Conservation—which opposes construction of the New Madrid levee—wrote in an official letter to the Corps that the “loss of the connectivity between the floodplain of the New Madrid Floodway and the Mississippi River is the single most significant project feature and its loss cannot, in reality, be mitigated.”

5) Better, More Cost-Effective Solutions Are At Hand

This project was first dreamt up in the mid-1950s and the design of this project has changed remarkably little since the Eisenhower Administration. The project is touted as providing protection for the small community of East Prairie, Missouri, but the Corps’ own analysis shows the project will not reduce how often the town floods. Small scale, low impact solutions are available to reduce flooding in East Prairie and should be pursued in a separate process. Furthermore, the Army Corps’ insistence on moving this project forward when critical infrastructure needs remain unfunded highlights the need for an overhaul of the agency’s planning process.

“Most of us who live at the confluence of America’s two greatest rivers understand that we face a least some degree of risk from Mother Nature,” said Harold McNelly, chairman  of the Alexander County Board of Illinois Commissioners. “That’s one thing, but it is quite another for an arm of the federal government to increase that risk to benefit a handful of individuals whose lives are not on the line.”

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