The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is looking to move forward with a costly levee system to protect a floodway in southern Missouri. The project is at the expense of much-needed maintenance to existing systems across the state.
In July, the USACE released its latest draft environmental impact statement for the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway project. A major component of this $164 million project is to close a 1,500-foot gap at the southern edge of the New Madrid Floodway with a new levee. USACE claims that this project will protect agricultural land in the New Madrid Floodway from yearly back-flooding with a benefit-to-cost ratio of 2:1.
However, experts and other government departments claim that the environmental impact statement, the seventh proposing this levee since Congress approved the project in 1954, underestimates both construction expenses and other externalities. The USACE is well-known for construction cost overruns, exemplified by a lock and dam project on the Ohio River. Although the money already spent on that project is almost five times the original budget, it remains incomplete.
The Corps is also likely underestimating ecological damage to the Mississippi River. As it closes off the last area in Missouri where the Mississippi has access to flooding areas, the proposed levee is likely to damage the Mississippi River’s ecology, including its fish stock and bird species. The U.S. Department of the Interior states that USACE’s plans for mitigation:
…lack scientific validation, are logistically infeasible, and inadequate both in kind…and amount.
A new levee endangers not only fish and fowl, but also Missouri residents. As the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) stated in 1995, “That levees increase flood levels is subject to little disagreement.” The back-flooding into the New Madrid Floodway relieves pressure from levees upstream in Missouri. Shutting off this escape route increases the danger of levee failure at other places along the river.
While the Corps plans a new levee system with ominous consequences, Missouri’s existing levees remain in a state of disrepair. Of the 133 rated levees in USACE’s registered system for Missouri, only 5 percent are fully acceptable for a 100-year flood (1 percent chance in any given year). Ninety percent are “minimally acceptable” (have one or more areas that endanger the structure) and an additional 5 percent are “unacceptable” (not rated to perform up to standard in the next flood). That $164 million might be better spent maintaining the system that already exists rather than protecting a floodway.