If there’s one thing this spring and early summer have taught us, it’s that severe storms and heavy rainfall have become frequent occurrences in Illinois. Risks to flood-prone communities are at an all time high, and flood protection measures are needed now more than ever. One method of flood relief that dozens of communities rely on for protection is the New Madrid Floodway, which connects the Mississippi River to its floodplain. The town of Cairo, Illinois learned just how important this Floodway is during a major flood in 2011 when the Army Corps blasted a hole in the Birds Points Levee to flood the floodplain and save the town from devastating damage. The use of the Floodway allowed water levels in Cairo to drop 2.7 feet in just 48 hours. The need for timely use of the Floodway was proven again during another flood in 2011 when a delay in its activation led to the destruction of 50 homes in Olive Branch, Illinois.
Despite overwhelming evidence of its importance, the Army Corps has proposed a project that would make it more difficult to use the Floodway for flood relief. This project—called the St. John’s Bayou-New Madrid Floodway project— would waste tax dollars, put communities at risk and cause irreparable damage to the environment. Many of our members and partners have fought the project since soon after it was first added to the Corp’s project list in 1954, and continue to make efforts to stop the project for good. The project proposal includes the construction of a 60-foot high, quarter mile long levee and two large pumping plants along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri. It would close the last 1,500 feet of floodplain connection at the south end of the New Madrid Floodway, destroying critical wetland habitat and interfering with emergency flood protection measures.
The New Madrid Project intends to allow increased development and agriculture in the Floodway, where a group of southeast Missouri farmers own land. The project would cost taxpayers $165 million while only benefitting this small set of landowners and putting Illinois communities at a greater risk of catastrophic flooding, especially in minority and low income communities. Intensifying crop production and other land usage would make it even harder to use the Floodway for needed flood relief in time to prevent disastrous effects. As Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman says, “This project risks the lives and livelihoods of thousands to secure financial gains for a few.”
The New Madrid Floodway not only protects communities from flooding, but it also provides vital fish and wildlife habitat and is an essential connection between the Mississippi River and its backwater floodplain. This critical part of the Mississippi River ecosystem allows the regular exchange of water, nutrients, and energy that support the plant and animal life in this unique area. The New Madrid Levee would drain more than 53,000 acres of wetlands, causing the greatest loss of wetlands function in EPA Region 7’s history. It would also destroy some of the most important fisheries habitat in the Mississippi and cause irretrievable losses of nationally significant fish and wildlife resources.
Despite a 2007 ruling by a federal judge to stop the project and tear down parts of it that had already been constructed, recent funding availability has put this project back on the table. The Environmental Protection Agency has the power to stop the project once and for all through a veto under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act due to its unacceptable adverse impacts. The EPA must veto this project to save taxpayer dollars, protect Mississippi River communities and preserve vital habitat and resources. Congress would have to appropriate construction funds for the project, giving our legislators the chance to stop this expensive project from moving forward if approved. To ensure this happens, we need leaders like Governor Rauner and Senator Durbin to take a stand for Illinois and against the St. John’s Bayou—New Madrid Levee Project.