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Stopping the New Madrid Levee Project

The New Madrid Levee Project is a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a new 60-foot-high, quarter-mile-long levee and two huge pumping plants along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri. The Corps wants to spend $165 million taxpayer dollars on this project to allow intensified use of the New Madrid Floodway, an area that provides vital fish and wildlife habitat and flood protection.

Egret, Gary Kramer

The New Madrid Floodway is an integral part of the Mississippi River ecosystem, and provides vital fish and wildlife habitat. The area is particularly important because it is the last place where the Mississippi River connects to its backwater floodplain in the state of Missouri. The river and floodplain connection allows the regular exchange of water, nutrients, and energy that is the ecological driver of this vital area.

The New Madrid Levee would sever this vital river-floodplain connection with devastating impacts. It would drain more than 53,000 acres of wetlands—an area of wetlands larger than the District of Columbia—and eliminate the most important backwater fisheries habitat in the Middle Mississippi River. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opposes the Project 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.”

The New Madrid Floodway also provides critical flood protection. During extreme floods, water is diverted into the Floodway’s 130,000 acres protecting dozens of river communities in Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky. It has always been a challenge to operate the Floodway in a timely manner, and increasing use of the Floodway will make it even harder to do so. In 2011, Missouri sued to stop use of the Floodway and the resulting delay led to catastrophic flooding in Olive Branch, Illinois where 50 homes were destroyed. After the Floodway was activated in 2011, water levels at Cairo Illinois dropped 2.7 feet in just 48 hours.

The Environmental Protection Agency has the authority—and the responsibility—to stop the New Madrid Levee Project under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. This provision allows EPA to veto a project that would have an unacceptable adverse effect on fish and wildlife. A Clean Water Act veto would stop this project once and for all.

The National Wildlife Federation is working with ninety conservation organizations and dozens of community leaders to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to use its Clean Water Act authority to stop the New Madrid Levee Project. More than 20,000 members of the public have already added their voices to this campaign.

Wildlife in Jeopardy

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that the New Madrid Levee project “would cause substantial, irretrievable losses of nationally significant fish and wildlife resources, and greatly diminish rare and unique habitats found in southeast Missouri.”

Millions of animals depend on the New Madrid Floodway’s connection to the Mississippi River for food and habitat, including the endangered Least Tern, migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, wading birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and at least 93 different species of fish.

Late winter surveys have counted 40,000 ducks and 10,000 Canada geese in the project area. Wading birds such as the great blue heron, great egret, and yellow-crowned night heron depend on the project area as do thousands of migratory shorebirds. The project would wipe out critical feeding grounds for thousands of shorebirds during their fall migration.

Mammals affected by the project include white-tail deer, eastern gray and fox squirrels, State-listed rare swamp rabbit, eastern cottontail rabbit, mink, beaver, raccoon, muskrat, striped skunk, coyote, red fox, and bats.

The project’s impacts would be particularly damaging for the remarkably rich and distinctive fishery that rely on the New Madrid Floodway for vital spawning and nursery grounds. In all, 93 different fish species have been collected from streams and bayous in the project area, including 10 species that are considered endangered, rare, or on the watch list in the state of Missouri. If the project is constructed, river fishes, such as white bass, will lose 100 percent of the extensive spawning, rearing, and foraging habitat provided by the New Madrid Floodway.

Experts Agree: Devastating for Wildlife and the Environment

The $165 million St. Johns-New Madrid project would cut the Mississippi River off from the last remaining area where it connects to its backwater floodplain in the state of Missouri. By destroying this rare river-floodplain connection, the project will drain an area of wetlands larger than the District of Columbia, eliminate the most important backwater fisheries habitat in the Middle Mississippi River, and threaten the safety of river communities. The Corps of Engineers is poised to recommend construction even though its own leadership has called the project an “economic dud” with “huge environmental consequences.”

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service:

The Project “would cause substantial, irretrievable losses of nationally significant fish and wildlife resources, and greatly diminish rare and unique habitats found in southeast Missouri.”

Environmental Protection Agency:

The Project would “cause the greatest loss of wetlands function in EPA Region 7’s history” the vast majority of which would be to “distinctive bottomland hardwood wetlands, which provide critical watershed functions” and would cause significant harm to “fish and wildlife resources of regional and national importance.”

Department of the Interior:

The Project would degrade or eliminate up to 53,556 acres of functional wetlands, and create “a suite of complex and unsolvable challenges in providing adequate mitigation for the wetland, fishery, and floodplain impacts.”

Missouri Department of Conservation:

The New Madrid Levee “should not be constructed” because the “loss of Mississippi River connectivity to the New Madrid Floodplain will result in significant impacts that cannot be addressed through mitigation.”

Independent experts charged by the Corps of Engineers with reviewing the Project study:

Loss of the river-floodplain connection from the Project “would be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’” for the long term health and sustainability of this reach of the Mississippi River.

Local Leaders Agree: Increases Flood Risks for Communities

Corps studies show that levees and floodwalls would overtop in dozens of river communities in Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky if the New Madrid Floodway is not used to divert floodwaters during a severe flood.

The levee project will put these communities at even greater risk of catastrophic flooding by creating more obstacles and opposition to the Floodway’s use; the purpose of the project is to increase development and agricultural use in the Floodway. Such flooding would cause devastating losses that would disproportionately affect the health and safety of minority and low income populations.

As flood waters were rising in 2011, the state of Missouri sued the Corps to stop the Floodway’s use. The resulting delay contributed to the flooding of Olive Branch, Illinois, which destroyed 50 homes and caused millions of dollars in damage. Any further delay could have completely wiped out Cairo. Once the Floodway was used, water levels at Cairo dropped 2.7 feet in just 48 hours.

Dozens of community leaders and elected officials have called on President Obama to put a stop to this dangerous project.

David Willis, Chairman of the Len Small Levee and Drainage District, Olive Branch, IL:

"We could have saved an entire community and avoided millions of dollars in flood damages if the New Madrid floodway had been used earlier during the 2011 flood. We simply can’t afford to make it even harder to use the floodway in the future.”

Richard Grigsby, President, Alexander/Pulaski Branch NAACP, IL:

This is a civil rights issue. The federal government is proposing to spend $165 million taxpayer dollars to put largely African-American communities at risk. Federal investments in this area should focus on keeping people safe and creating economic equality, not on giving even more subsidies to a handful of landowners operating in a designated flood zone. The Obama Administration needs to veto this wasteful and unjust project.”

Tyrone Coleman, Mayor of Cairo, IL:

This project risks the lives and livelihoods of thousands to secure financial gains for a few. Cairo has had a great relationship with the Corps of Engineers and we would hope and pray that they would reconsider their stance on the New Madrid Levee Project. The Obama Administration needs to stop this project once and for all.”

Monica Smith, President, Cairo Chamber of Commerce, IL:

This project will add to the economic insecurity that already plagues Cairo. The new levee will put Cairo at greater risk from catastrophic floods, making it even more difficult to attract new businesses and residents. The Obama Administration should be fighting for our economic security, not using tax dollars to destroy it.”

Harold McNelly, Chairman, Alexander County Board of Commissioners, IL:

Most of us who live at the confluence of America's two greatest rivers understand that we face a least some degree of risk from Mother Nature. That's one thing, but it is quite another for an arm of the federal government to increase that risk to benefit a handful of individuals whose lives are not on the line. I'ts time for the Obama Administration to put public safety first and put an end to this folly of a levee once and for all.”

Economists Agree: A Bad Investment for Taxpayers

Despite decades of trying, the Corps has not been able to demonstrate that the $165 million project is a good investment for taxpayers. The Corps economic analysis lacks critical and fundamental information, is based on flawed and unsupportable assumptions, and is rife with inconsistences and math errors.

Donald C. Sweeney II, Ph.D., former Corps economist and Affiliate Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis:

The Corps’ “economic analysis should be considered unreliable and insufficient to determine whether or not the recommended alternative, or any other alternative for that matter, will likely produce a positive net economic return for taxpayers’ investments.”

Independent experts charged by the Corps of Engineers with reviewing the Project study:

The adequacy and acceptability of the economic analysis and projections cannot be determined because sufficient information regarding agricultural economic modeling has not been provided” and the Corps does not provide enough detailed information “to understand how the economic analyses and projections have been calculated and whether profits increase or not and why.”

Project Opposition

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