Victory on the Mississippi and the Role of Landscape Architects

The Mississippi River along New Madrid, MO

Before obtaining my Master of Landscape Architecture last spring at the University of Maryland, I worked for the National Wildlife Federation as coordinator of the Water Protection Network, a coalition of hundreds of NGOs from around the country working to modernize US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) water resources policies. The USACE has been leading the federal government’s approach to water resource management for navigable rivers since the late 1920s.

Familiarity with a whole host of water resource professionals, environmental activists, and scientists who play an active role in helping to shape the federal government’s role in water resources management enables me to share details about the controversial New Madrid Levee Project.

A resolution from the White House Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) provides an overview of the St. John’s Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project (New Madrid Levee project for short), a proposed quarter-mile levee in southeast Missouri. This resolution was the result of a deal CEQ brokered between the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and USACE, who disagreed on whether mitigation the USACE proposed was adequate to replace the wetland and floodplain functions the New Madrid Levee would eliminate.

One might conclude that this case study is a poster child for how to (or how not to) manage our big river systems in the US. With the resolution, CEQ stopped the pending USACE project in its tracks while it was under final stage review to construct the New Madrid Levee. The New Madrid Levee would have severed the Mississippi River from the last place in all of Missouri where the river can flow into the floodplain to create backwater habitat that is vital for flood attenuation and fish and wildlife habitat. Approximately 50,000 acres of wetlands (comparable in size to Washington, DC) with valuable water conservation and critical fish and wildlife functions would be eliminated should the proposed levee ever be built.

Here’s more detail about the New Madrid Levee, with a focus on why water conservation efforts like this should be part of licensed landscape architect’s regular role:

The New Madrid Floodway

The New Madrid Floodway is one of four floodways that USACE designed into the Mississippi Rivers and Tributaries Project (MR&T)—the entire flood control system that Congress authorized in 1928 following the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The MR&T levee system extends along the Mississippi River all the way from southeast Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico, affecting a 35,000-square-mile project area.

The levees that surround the New Madrid floodway, are 60 feet high and surround the New Madrid Floodway, except for a quarter-mile gap at New Madrid. The most controversial element of the St. Johns Bayou New Madrid Floodway Project is a new proposed levee, which came to be known as the New Madrid Levee closing the quarter-mile outflow gap.

Flooding Impacts

Closing the outflow gap with the proposed New Madrid Levee will increase the flooding potential to a dozen riverside towns by encouraging more agribusiness and development in the New Madrid Floodway, thereby discouraging use as a floodway. Since 1937, the USACE has faced significant obstacles when it tries to activate the New Madrid Floodway, and adding the new levee to block the outflow will only add another obstacle.

To activate the New Madrid Floodway, the USACE fills 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, the agency called in the National Guard to fend off armed Missouri floodway farmers, even though the federal government 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.

However, during the great Mississippi River Flood of 2011, activation levels were reached, and 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 Branch, IL 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 Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Alexander County Flood of 2011: 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.

image: iStock

Environmental Impacts

Thanks to the thousands of miles of levees on the Mississippi River, the quarter-mile outflow gap represents the last significant connection the Mississippi River has to the natural floodplain in the whole state of Missouri and for hundreds of miles. This connection is 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 develop in warmer, calmer, and shallower water compared to the cold swift currents of the mighty Mississippi. Closing the outflow gap will eliminate existing floodway habitat and likely lead to a collapse or demise of the fishery of the entire Middle Mississippi River.

According to the USFWS 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.”

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.”

Roles for Licensed Landscape Architects

In 1937 when USACE activated the floodway, Major General Edward Markham, Chief of Engineers, testified before the House Committee on Flood Control that, “I am now of the opinion that no plan is satisfactory which is based upon deliberately turning floodwaters upon the home and property of people, even though the right to do so may have been paid for in advance.”

The day prior to activating the floodway in May 2011, in a Mississippi River Commission statement announcing the operation of the floodway, Major General Michael J. Walsh, Commander of the USACE Mississippi Valley Division, stated, “Making this decision is not easy or hard—it’s simply grave—because the decision leads to loss of property and livelihood—either in a floodway—or in an area that was not designed to flood.”

So the question for licensed landscape architects is how best to influence federal policy to avoid placing residents, whether the number is 3,000 residents in 1937 or 200 residents today, intentionally in harm’s way? What design solutions can landscape architects define and bring forward? How does good design balance agriculture, public safety, and environmental considerations when making water resource management decisions?

One possible approach is to treat the Mississippi River and its floodplain better. Continued manipulation of the River by navigation and agribusinesses throughout the Mississippi and Ohio basins to “get the water off the fields” as fast as possible has continued to increase flooding risks year-by-year, decade-by-decade, leading to the current situation. The 1927 flood took months of sustained and unyielding rain to bring both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to flood stage. By comparison, the May 2011 flood event exceeded the 1927 flood elevation at the Cairo gage in a matter of days.

A better way forward may be to allow the New Madrid Floodway Outflow to remain open to the Mississippi River and become a natural floodplain again. Perhaps with the support expressed by licensed landscape architects, a National Wildlife Refuge could be created with gates that manage periodic water releases into the New Madrid Floodway, rather than levee-breaching explosives.

Allowing the Mississippi River to spread out within its natural floodway instead of being confined to the main levee channel can create groundwater recharge areas, recreational opportunities from new fish and wildlife habitat, and capture pollutants like nitrogen to benefit the health of the Gulf of Mexico—all while maintaining a sustainable agricultural function. These and other potential positive impacts and outcomes should be supported by licensed landscape architects—outcomes that result from a balanced approach by the federal government, perhaps in a future study for a new vision for the New Madrid Floodway.

As our nation faces increasing flooding threats, from increasing land impacts caused by adding impervious surfaces in floodways, adding navigation structures, and other factors, licensed landscape architects should play a critical role in seeking balanced solutions for protecting health, safety, and welfare. Perhaps we should start advocating for federal river management policy that allows “Room for Rivers”—retreating from altering floodplains while enabling multiple uses of natural floodways. To do so would avoid having to make the “simply grave” decisions to turn river waters loose on our fellow citizens.

For more information:

NWF’s New Madrid levee webpage with key documents

US Army Corps of Engineers page with the EIS plus NEPA support documents

To express your support toward a better approach as outlined above, please leave a short comment to the ASLA Water Conservation PPN LinkedIn group discussion “Retain the Floodway or Add New Madrid Levee?”

A version of this post was originally published via EcoWatch.

by George Sorvalis, Associate ASLA, Consultant Landscape Architect, Ecosolutions, LLC

One thought on “Victory on the Mississippi and the Role of Landscape Architects

  1. nancy pottorff April 15, 2017 / 4:41 pm

    retain the floodway

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