Political reality swamps ecologists' restoration dreams

EAST PRAIRIE, Mo. -- Milus Wallace won't forget seeing the Mississippi River swamp his farm last spring after the Army Corps of Engineers blew up the levee that separated his land from the raging river.

"From here for 20 miles," Wallace said recently from a perch on the levee's remains, "it was nothing but water."

Water unleashed by the dynamited levee took a $2 million toll on 61-year-old Wallace's farm, he said, swamping the house where he'd lived for some 40 years, a guesthouse and two trailers. The flood crumpled a dozen grain silos as though they were soda cans and blanketed 700 acres of soybeans in water and mud.

Wallace's misery had company in the record-shattering flood. About 200 of his neighbors in a 130,000-acre swath of southeastern Missouri that serves as a relief valve for the swollen river were forced to evacuate ahead of the Army Corps blowing open the levee on May 2 and drowning farm fields here for the first time in 74 years.

Soybeans have rebounded in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, but farmers' anger lingers. Landowners have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Army Corps for dynamiting the levees, and they are worried that the flooding will return next spring.

"It bothers me that our government can blow something up and then run off," Wallace said.

Citing higher priorities on its $2 billion list of repairs needed as a result of the 2011 floods, the Army Corps has not committed to rebuilding levees here to their original 62.5-foot height before next flood season. But under pressure from Missouri lawmakers, the Army Corps agreed last month to rebuild levees to 55 feet, 4 feet taller than originally announced.

Washed away in the political deluge: a plan promoted by ecologists to not rebuild the levees. That option, they say, would be initially more expensive because it would require buying out landowners, but it would save taxpayers' money in the long run by avoiding payments for future flood-related property damage.

Levees and other flood-control and navigation projects along the Mississippi River have opened vast tracts for farming and development and created a superhighway for shipping. Lost in the bargain, environmentalists say, are natural flood basins that safely absorbed periodic floods and provided pollution control and wildlife habitat.


Without the floodplains, ecologists say, the river is more prone to more frequent and intense floods. It is time, they say, to let the river flow, and there is no better place to try that than the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

"To not really take a hard look at keeping it open permanently would be a huge mistake," said Shana Udvardy, director of flood management policy for the advocacy group American Rivers.

Those calls for changing management of the Mississippi have not only been ignored but met with hostility -- especially from key members of Congress, which would have to pass legislation authorizing opening the floodway. Missouri's congressional delegation -- notably, Sens. Roy Blunt (R) and Claire McCaskill (D) and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R) -- have been pressuring the Army Corps to rebuild the levee.

"If you take down the levee," Blunt said, "you put it back up."

Hidden costs?

The Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway is one piece of the world's largest flood-control system -- levees, floodways, pumps and reservoirs known as the Mississippi River & Tributaries (MR&T) project.

The Army Corps built the project at Congress' direction in the wake of 1927 floods that killed at least 256 people and caused $400 million in damage (the equivalent of $5 billion today).

The corps ranks the project among its greatest achievements. Even before it contained this year's epic flood, the MR&T has brought to U.S. taxpayers a 27-to-1 return on investment, according to the corps, including $350 billion in prevented flood damages.

Prior to 1927, consensus was that levees alone could contain the Mississippi River's floods, as they had for decades. But the 1927 flood changed that, leading to the incorporation of four floodways and the purchase of "flowage easements" from landowners that allowed the intentional inundation of land to relieve the swollen river.

Birds Point-New Madrid is the northernmost of four floodways. At 130,000 acres, the footprint of this lush farmland is about three times larger than that of Washington, D.C. The floodway abuts the west bank of the Mississippi, just below its confluence with the Ohio River and is 35 miles long and between 3 and 10 miles wide.

The floodway is designed to draw about 550,000 cubic feet of water from the Mississippi or about 5.5 times the flow of Niagara Falls. The goal is to lower pressure on the system, particularly on levees protecting Cairo, Ill., and other cities and towns.

Critics say the corps' cost-benefit analysis disguises a hidden cost of levee-building and channelizing. Robert Criss, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, said the system is making flooding worse. With less room to spread out, floodwater can only rise, he said.

"Flooding is getting more frequent and more severe," Criss said.

But the Army Corps, he said, pretends water has not risen by relying on outdated statistical data. In 2008, Criss modeled corps' flood projections along the Mississippi against actual flood gauge readings and found a 99.9 percent chance the projections were incorrect.

Criss maintains the agency's flood projections are off by a factor of 10, meaning that a 1-in-100-year flood actually occurs about once a decade. So, he said, the corps should stay away from analyses of flood risks and flood-zone boundaries -- key for assessing insurance premiums.

Army Corps officials "are the last people in the world at this point who ought to be doing it," Criss said. "Somebody independent needs to be doing it now. Talk about asking the fox to re-guard the henhouse. They have no credibility."

The corps contends that Criss and other critics misrepresent statistics just as a gambler assumes that because a number just hit on a roulette wheel, it won't hit again anytime soon. A 1-in-100-year flood could occur in any given year, or several years in a row, the corps said.

Corps' leaders also reject environmentalists calling the river "straitjacketed."

"I say to those folks who say there's not enough room for the river that I think perhaps some of their data may be off," Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the corps' Mississippi Valley Division, said in an interview.

The Army Corps moved from a "levee-only" policy after 1927 to incorporate floodways, backwaters and other features that allowed the river to overflow. "So there's lots of areas where we move water laterally off of the river at high flood stages," Walsh said. "I know there's a lot of folks talking about 'straitjacketing' the river, and I would tell them they probably need to go back and check their history."

George Sorvalis, manager of the nonprofit National Wildlife Federation's water resources campaigns and coordinator of the Water Protection Network, formerly known as the Corps Reform Network, concedes that Walsh knows his history but that doesn't mean he's correct in the corps' approach to river management.

"I would argue that it's still a predominantly levee-centric approach," Sorvalis said. "The system did a pretty impressive job of conveying the spring flood of 2011. However, it's clear that we need to move beyond the current configuration to even less reliance on levees and more reliance on the natural benefits and functions that floodplains provide. I would say keep moving in that direction."

'Nothing short of economic terrorism'

On the day the Army Corps blew up the Birds Point levee here last May, three professors at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, sent a letter to President Obama urging him to study the possibility of leaving the levees down.

James Garvey, a zoologist and director of SIU's Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center, Matt Whiles, director of the Middle Mississippi River Wetland Field Station, and Silvia Secchi, an agribusiness economist, told Obama that restoring the floodplain would yield economic returns that far exceed the cost of buying out landowners.

"The breach will open the Mississippi River to 205 square miles of floodplain ... that has been denied direct access to the river for decades," they wrote. "When not inundated, this area provides farmland to Missouri residents, with high realized economic value to the state of Missouri. What is ignored is the much higher potential value of this floodplain to U.S. society if it is left open to the river and allowed to be inundated regularly."

The letter drew a swift, furious response along the Mississippi.

SIU alumni threatened to stop giving to the university. Blake Hurst, the Missouri Farm Bureau president, wrote an op-ed dubbing the three professors the "I miss malaria caucus" and warning of "a land grab of massive proportions."

And Trent Hurley, CEO of a farm commodities brokerage, sent the three an email saying their proposal was "nothing short of economic terrorism."

"Sir to say that we find it disgusting would be an understatement," he wrote. "I will be forwarding your letter to various businesses, SIU alumni, and high school counselors so that they can see firsthand the type of rhetoric that now comes out of your school and its anti-agriculture stance."

Garvey said the anger that greeted the proposal shocked him. "This is an opportunity for us to determine the relative value of that farmland," he said in an interview.

"We were just asking to do research, and people were treating it as if we're telling the president to leave it open."

But the three academics probably could have anticipated a harsh response to their proposal, given that a campaign to rebuild the levees began even before the Army Corps blew them up. And in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, news coverage focused on the plight of farmers and flooding.

Some speculated that the demolition was a federal conspiracy to reclaim farmland. And a few suggested the levee demolition was meant to trigger an earthquake. "I don't know, man, I'm starting to think that more sinister things are going on in southern Missouri than just trying to divert water," one conspiracy theorist said on YouTube.

Osborne & Barr, a St. Louis public relations firm that specializes in the agriculture industry, created a website, disasteratbirdspoint.com, to encourage people to write the Army Corps and Congress to demand that the levees be rebuilt.

"We just want to make sure that the people who have farmed there for generations will have the ability to do so into the future," said Neil Caskey, the firm's director of government and public affairs.

Flawed plan, execution

If anything, the Army Corps waited too long to blow the levee.

Under the corps' 1928 operations plan, the agency was to "activate" the floodway when water levels reached 55 feet at Cairo, Ill. In 1937 -- the only time before this year that the floodway was used -- the corps waited until the river was a few feet higher than that.

Over the years, the operations plan was rewritten to set the "trigger" at 61.5 feet. But the corps waited until just beyond that -- 61.72 feet -- to blow the levee.

As the corps delayed, water was pouring into Olive Branch, Ill., about 15 miles northwest of here. About 175 homes were flooded in Olive Branch and surrounding Alexander County, many in the final day or two before the levee was blown. "Approximately half of that could have been avoided," Alexander County engineer Jeff Denny said.

As soon as the levees were demolished, floodwater receded rapidly, reinforcing the conclusion that much of the flooding as avoidable.

Alexander County Commissioner Harold McNelly maintains the corps hesitated because Illinois' politicians failed to apply as much pressure on the agency as their Missouri counterparts. "All we see on television was Missouri politicians," he said. "Nobody from Illinois. I believe if there had put up equal pressure, it might have gotten blown when it was supposed to get blown."

Nicholas Pinter, an SIU geology professor, said the corps' delay in demolishing the levees points to a major flaw in relying on the floodway: Powerful political forces oppose its operation.

"The trend is political pressure from Missouri beating the political resistance in Illinois and Kentucky and Tennessee steadily over the 80-year history of this system," Pinter said in an interview. "Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee residents have fought this back through time, and each and every time in each and every case, they're losing."

Another problem: Levee operation isn't foolproof. Some of the charges set by the corps in May failed to detonate, and in some places there were not enough explosives. The plan was to blow three sections of levee -- 11,000 feet near the top, 5,000 in the middle and another 5,000 at the bottom -- but only 9,000 feet blew at the top and 800 feet in the middle.

A loser in the botched operation was farmer Milus Wallace, whose property is adjacent to the middle breach.

With the levee gap restricted, the river rushed into his property as though it were shooting out of a fire hose. The force dug a "scour hole" the size of a sports stadium and covered hundreds of acres in sand.

While his neighbors in other sections of the levee had their farms soaked with nutrient-laden floodwaters, Wallace got a sandy mess. An expensive repair is required before he can farm that area again.

Maj. Jon Korneliussen of the Army Corps noted during a recent tour the chest-high soybeans that had grown on some farms since the flood. "This landowner won," he said. "Milus did not."

Now dependent on the corps to repair his land, Wallace opted not to join more than two dozen landowners who sued the agency for blowing the levee.

"There's a bunch of them that signed, because they didn't have the destruction I got," Wallace said. "The corps told us, if you're in the lawsuit, we can't talk to you."

Number crunching

The Army Corps predicted that blowing open the levee would cost $314 million in damages and prevent another $1.47 billion in destruction to levees, towns and cities elsewhere along the Mississippi River.

The corps has also attached price tags for a series of options it studied for what comes next for the levee system.

On the low end is $4.8 million a year for rebuilding 51-foot-tall levees -- an option deemed unacceptable because of elevated flood risks -- and toward the high end was $449 million to build floodgates to replace the breakaway levees. The floodgate option was deemed too expensive.

Most expensive in the package is the option favored by environmentalists, buyouts that would cost $582 million.

The corps' choice: rebuilding levees to their pre-demolition height at an estimated cost of $29.9 million. That alternative offers "the best compromise of environmental impacts and project costs," the agency's draft environmental assessment says.

SIU professor Garvey questions the corps' choice. "What happens if we have another flood in 10 years? Is the corps going to blow this thing again?" he asked. "The societal concern is the cost to the taxpayers. As a person who's paying into the federal tax system, the fact that it's going toward a system that might have to fail again and once again cost exorbitant amounts of money to support a handful of folks and their private land is a little bit curious."

While the Army Corps' analysis assigns a hefty cost to the buyouts, he said, it neglects to assign a dollar value to avoided flood costs and enhanced ecological values of a restored floodplain. For example, scientists say, the floodplain would soak up pollution and keep nutrients from washing to the Gulf of Mexico. Excessive nitrogen and phosphorus from Midwest farms fuel a summer Gulf "dead zone" -- an area devoid of marine life because of such low levels of dissolved oxygen.

The corps conducted a 1990 study to consider alternative uses of the floodway, including a total buyout of landowners. But such an approach was found unfeasible under the standards the federal government uses to evaluate water resources projects.

In 2007, Congress ordered the corps to update those rules, which were written in 1983, to give greater weight to now better-understood environmental implications -- for example, the value of wetlands and floodplains in flood-prevention and pollution reduction -- when making decisions about federal water projects.

The first draft of that policy was expected in June but significant progress will now likely be delayed at least a year, because of a policy rider attached to the 2012 spending deal struck last week that prevents the corps from using any money to implement the new rules (E&ENews PM), Dec. 16).

While the Army Corps reworks its policy, Missouri lawmakers are racing to close the floodway.

Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson blasted environmental groups and the SIU professors for complicating the push to rebuild the levees. "The only resistance that I really see is the elite environmental folks who don't live anywhere close to where we are with the exception of those three biologists at Southern Illinois, one of whom is an Italian," Emerson said. "I don't know where the other two are from, but they don't live in Mississippi County, for sure."

While environmental groups "can raise a lot of money and file lawsuits," Emerson said, she has power as an appropriator to control funding for the corps "if they call for that baloney."

"I'm ready to duke it out, so we'll see," she said. "But people's lives and livelihoods for generations and generations are at stake here."

Bid to revive pump project

Sen. Blunt does not think it will be necessary to start swinging. "I think the corps," he said, "is fully committed to return the Birds Point floodway to the position it was from 1937 until May."

In fact, the Army Corps seems committed to go beyond that. The agency has, for the seventh time, embarked on multimillion-dollar study of a pump project at the southern end of the floodway that would close a 1,500-foot gap in levees and sever another piece of floodplain from the river.

The $107 million pump project -- the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway -- was shut down in 2007 by Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Invalidating the environmental analysis the corps had used to justify the project, Robertson wrote that many parts of the analysis "lack factual support or substantial evidence."

On May 12, Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman wrote Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), urging him to oppose the St. John's Bayou project. The project, Coleman wrote, would endanger Cairo by encouraging more development in the floodway "and therefore put more political pressure on the Corps not to use the floodway."

"We don't do projects like that anymore," National Wildlife Federation's Sorvalis said. "We're talking economically wasteful and environmentally devastating, not to mention putting people and property at risk."

Ninety percent of the project's projected benefits would accrue to agriculture interests in the floodway at the expense of taxpayers and communities up and down the river, he said.

Before any work is done on the levees, Sorvalis said there needs to be "a concerted effort ... that takes the watershed into account and brings all stakeholders to the table."

"We need to have these discussions before these projects are drawn up or reinvestment in the system happens," he said.

But such efforts should expect to hear from farmer Milus Wallace and agriculture interests along the river.

Said Wallace, "I have yet to see one of these environmentalists come down here and tell me why it needs to be wetlands."

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines