Guest Blog by Christine Favilla, Sierra Club

Originally posted in the Nicollet Island Coalition Blog

Recent floods highlight the need for big changes in the management of the Mississippi River, changes leading to a more sustainable system with long-term objectives. Currently, those that make the final decisions of how the river is managed have been more likely to support short-term economic development for a small portion of the population over other priorities. This type of planning ignores the environmental and social devastation caused by similar projects in the past. As directed by Congress in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2007, we implore the Army Corps of Engineers to use sustainable, non-structural management techniques and methods on issues of commercial navigation, flood reduction, and wildlife management. We need to stop supporting the status quo and work towards wholesale change in how we live with the river.

Mississippi River at Grafton, Illinois; Photo Credit: Virginia Woulfe Beile

Mississippi River at Grafton, Illinois; Photo Credit: Virginia Woulfe Beile

We all know that increased flooding disrupts peoples’ lives, negatively affects the economy, and causes erosion resulting in the loss of land, plants/trees, flora, and fauna. There have been increasingly more severe rain events causing interior flooding. We are also living with a modified river system causing increased water levels in the floodplain and neighboring communities, yet the underlying reasons the river levels have increased aren’t discussed widely, even with the people whose very lives are being disrupted.

The Mississippi River is a highly managed ecosystem, so every aspect of the environmental management needs must be treated as an equal project purpose with any navigation considerations, per specifications of the WRDA and Executive Orders. Yet, the bias of promoting the subsidized barge industry above all other interests have prevented the much-needed review of the effects that river navigation infrastructure has on flood risk reduction, environmental health, and recreation. Thus, the management falls short of protecting the river’s health and providing those living within the river basin with long-term economic and biological benefits from the river.

Navigation Channel

The construction of the Inland Waterway System (IWS) has been a prime cause of the degradation to the Mississippi River. The barge infrastructure has had immense negative impacts upon biodiversity, the public services that a healthy river provides, and the taxpayers’ wallets. It is subsidized more than 90% by our tax dollars.

Agriculture helped spur the barge industry. In the early 1900s, shipping agricultural products dramatically increased with help from the 1927 River and Harbor Act which authorized a 9 foot deep navigation channel up to St. Louis. The 1930 River and Harbors Act extended the 9 foot channel upstream to Minneapolis, to be achieved by constructing 24 locks-and-dams, an effort completed by 1940. The pooled reaches of the UMR today consist of a series of slack-water pools at low flows, with minimum navigation depths maintain by those dams. This help provides today’s constant water level for navigation.

Today, minimum navigation depths are maintained using “river training structures” such as wing dikes and bendway weirs, along with locks and dams, dredging, and revetments in the channel below St. Louis. Dams and channel training structures have confined the river’s erosive power to a central channel for navigation, shifting the majority of physical habitat from calm and shallow to deep and swift.

Studies line out the fact that river training structures have been shown to raise flood levels by constricting the channel, blocking flow, and reducing flow velocities during flooding. Structures like chevrons and wing dikes are responsible for filling in side channels with silt and sediment, for eliminating the side channels’ natural unclogging each spring (that used to occur by natural floods), and for reducing the places wildlife need to feed, conserve energy and reproduce, which results in key links in the river’s food chain disappearing– links such as aquatic plants, mussels and insects.

Levees

Floodplains act like sponges, soaking up rain and excess floodwater runoff, yet more than half of the river’s floodplain has been cut off by levees.

Agricultural development, as well as the growth of towns and cities, has led to the progressive growth of levees on the Middle Mississippi River and Upper Mississippi River floodplains. Levees serve to confine the river into a much smaller floodplain area, increasing flood severity. Originally, large floods on the Mississippi extended from bluff to bluff, a distance spanning several miles along most of the river, now the waters are confined within the main channel.

Instead of shunning these waters, we ought to be methodically and safely inviting them in: floodwaters replenish agricultural soils with nutrients and transport sediment that is necessary to maintain downstream delta and coastal areas. We believe the Corps should fully and carefully evaluate levee-building alternative options such as levee setbacks, upstream and downstream wetland restoration, restoration of the river’s natural channel, voluntary buy-outs, and other nonstructural measures to obtain the authorized level of flood protection. There are two, ill-conceived levee projects that fall into this category.

The Sny Levee District has been modifying their levees in violation of their Corps’ 404 permits. These activities have been undertaken to secure 100-year flood accreditation by FEMA. Their actions are increasing the flood risk for downstream communities, according to Corps’ preliminary modeling. This expensive practice of raising their levees fosters endless competition among levee districts, pitting farmers against farmers against municipalities. The ultimate result is catastrophic failures that destroy levees, destroy roads and property, and cause destructive scour and sand deposition on the fields. We believe that the public and officials need to immediately discuss the impacts of the levee modifications and oppose unauthorized levee modifications along the Mississippi River because of the flooding impacts to river communities downstream.

New Madrid Floodway is critical flood protection for nearby communities. During extreme floods, water is diverted into the Floodway’s 130,000 acres protecting dozens of river communities in Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky. The walling-off and draining of the last significant part of the state’s floodplain that remains connected to the river, to improve production of cotton and soybeans, will happen on the taxpayers’ dime. This $165 million project will increase – not decrease – flood risks in the region by promoting more intensive agricultural development in an area that currently, by law, must be intentionally flooded to protect Cairo and other towns during large Mississippi River floods. We believe that to protect communities and habitats along the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois and Southeastern Missouri, the Environmental Protection Agency should to stop the project under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act by vetoing the St. Johns Bayou- New Madrid Floodway project.

Increase public’s attachment to and knowledge of our River System

Major changes are needed in the management of the Mississippi River. We would like to see significantly less special interest influence upon the process and much more public interest involvement. We would like to see a less subsidized navigation and agriculture system and require any new project or expansion to examine the true costs in tax dollars and detrimental river impacts.

In order to responsibly reap the benefits of the ecosystem services of a healthy, functioning river like flood protection, we need to start talking about the problem’s causes with one another on a much more regular basis. That is a tall order, so we must start to make connections between residents, the river, and its floodplain before we can ask them to have an active voice. For people to want to be active to preserve our environment, they need to know it, understand it, and appreciate it first.

Conservation activities such as planting native grasses, trees, and other vegetation to improve water quality, soil, and wildlife habitat along the Mississippi’s tributaries and adjacent farmland help make such a connection. We encourage participation in river and tributary litter and snag cleanups where the community works together to improve an area and be proud of their actions.

Enjoyable outdoor activities such as paddling water trails on local creeks, hiking along bottomland forest and atop of bluff structures including hill top prairies, and participating in an annual bird count can bring neighbors of all backgrounds together. The Upper Mississippi is a migratory flyway for 40% of all North American waterfowl; both tree huggers and duck hunters alike appreciate the need to conserve such important backwaters regardless of their personal desire for consumptive or non-consumptive activities.

Education surrounding the history, social, economic, ecological facets of the Mississippi River can look very different for different communities. Becoming involved in local resiliency planning or attending public comment periods for local river-related projects and meeting with local and regional businesses on storm water and best management plans allows for increased knowledge and viewpoints. Simple steps can be to encourage:

High school teachers to take advantage of our Upper Mississippi River High School Problem Based Learning project;
Residents and leaders to attend our Let’s Grow Native Conference and Mayors’ Dinner Presentation;
General public to attend and participate in the Riverbend Earth Day, Godfrey Arbor Day, Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower’s “From Earth Day to Arbor Day” Festival, and the Mississippi Earthtones Festival allows for localized knowledge and interactions.
Everyone to consciously make changes in your diet and purchasing patterns by attending farmer’s markets, local stores, Urban Farm and Sustainable Backyard Tours, and learning from one another how to become more resilient and less reliable on an agriculture and transportation system that requires more tax payers funding for further degradation of the river.
Dealing with flooding in our status quo management system can be exhausting. Owing to our limited knowledge of the environment, and our complete dependence upon it, we need to minimize our “management” of our ecosystems and begin managing ourselves within the limited capacities of these ecosystems.