The stretch of the Mississippi River that touches Kentucky and Missouri is on one environmental group’s list of the most endangered rivers in the country. American Rivers says the wildlife of the Middle Mississippi River is threatened by a proposed flood control project.
The New Madrid Floodway is in the boot heel of Missouri, right where the state meets Kentucky and Tennessee. The system is built to prevent flooding upriver; when catastrophic floods happen, the excess water goes into the floodway. But there’s a gap in the floodway’s levy system—and during years of regular flooding, river water backs up there and creates a diverse wetland wildlife habitat.
An Army Corps of Engineers project that’s decades in the works would close that gap—and that proposal is why the Middle Mississippi made the list of the nation’s ten most endangered rivers. Eileen Fretz Shader of American Rivers said keeping that gap open is crucial for the wildlife, but also could encourage more development in the area and make it difficult for the floodway to be activated for its intended use.
“It’s during those periods of seasonal floods when you have fish, like largemouth bass that will swim onto the floodplain, and that’s when they can reproduce and really keep their populations high," she said. "And migrating ducks will stop in the floodway during their migration and rest and feed.
"But during those catastrophic years is where we would see the public safety impacts for other communities,” she said.
She said those public safety impacts would come as development ramped up near the floodway, which would make it politically more complicated for the Army Corps to use the area for its intended purpose during catastrophic floods.
In an environmental impact statement for the project, Corps officials say it’s necessary for flood control. The Corps also plans to convert agricultural land to forests to provide additional wildlife habitat, and to make up for the wetlands that will be eliminated by the project.
The Middle Mississippi River also made American Rivers’ list of the country’s top ten endangered rivers in 2001 and 2002, for the same reasons. The group has been compiling the list for 31 years.