Prairie Rivers Network & partners seek EPA veto
by Kim Knowles
Down in the Missouri boot heel lies a huge expanse of wetlands where migratory birds seek rest and food, and where fish spawn and rear their young. By storing massive amounts of water during storms, the wetlands also protect the Illinois towns of Cairo and Olive Branch from destructive flooding. These precious wetlands get their water from the Mississippi River through the last remaining gap in the complex of levees that divide the river from its floodplain. Without the gap, the wetlands would die, along with many of the fish and birds that rely on them. It is this natural flooding through the gap in the levee that has created the most important backwater fisheries habitat in the Middle Mississippi River.
The Corps’ New Madrid Levee project would close the 1500 foot gap in the Mississippi River levee with a 60 foot high wall and drain the area with massive pumps. The price tag is high, $349 million taxpayer dollars, especially when you consider who gains; and who loses.
The winners are few. A small group of powerful agricultural landowners in the floodway want more certainty over crop production. With the gap closed, these landowners will be freer to plant still more crops and otherwise further develop the floodway. Senators McCaskill and Blunt stand to gain the farmer vote through support of the project.
The losers are many. Too many. The Town of Olive Branch, Illinois lost 50 homes in a 2011 flood, because Missouri landowners in the floodway brought last minute legal action to try to stop the Corps from using the floodway. The delay cost Olive Branch millions of dollars in damage. Cairo, IL; Paducah, KY; and Hickman, MO are at similar risk of flooding should the levee be built. Once the gap is closed it is fully expected that development within the floodway will intensify. More development means more opposition to operation of the floodway when it is needed. Putting these small struggling river towns at greater risk of flooding also makes it more difficult for them to attract businesses and residents, intensifying economic insecurity.
And then there are the many fish, bird, and other wild species that depend on this area for their survival. We’ve walled off so much of the Mississippi River from its natural floodplain that few backwater habitats persist. It is in these backwater areas that critical spawning, rearing, and nesting occur, and allow species to recover, reproduce, and even thrive. There are fewer and fewer of these places, and we must protect them.
The New Madrid levee has had many heads since its birth in 1954. In 2007, opponents thought they’d finally seen the end of it when a federal district court ordered the Army Corps to “tear down that wall” (or something like that) and dismantle the parts the Corps had built. But being forced to tear down the project proved no deterrent. The Corps is poised to release its final plan recommending once again that the project be built, and with taxpayer funding.
So, how will we finally kill this thing? There is a way. Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA has the authority to veto the project. An EPA veto would ring the final death knell for the New Madrid levee. And that is what we’re working to achieve. Prairie Rivers Network and a coalition of groups have garnered the support of influential leaders who oppose this project. Recently, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has called upon EPA to veto the New Madrid levee, as has the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), Congressman Mike Bost (R-IL), the Illinois Conference of the NAACP, the City of Metropolis, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Missouri Department of Conservation oppose the project, as do environmental groups and community leaders in Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky. Various experts and federal agencies have called out the many problems with the project, including its incredibly destructive impacts on the environment. It is ultimately EPA’s decision whether or not to veto. The coalition will continue to work to convince EPA that a veto is the only solution.
 The original version of this article listed the pricetag for the levee as $165 million, but recent Army Corps estimates have increased the price to $349 million.