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.

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