Part One: Dogfight On The Rising River

Mar 23, 2015

This story is part of our series "Shortage in Rich Land" on Missouri's Bootheel region. Click here to see all of the stories.

For years, some small towns and farmers along the Mississippi River have been battling each other over a flood project set up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

On the western shore, farmers in southeast Missouri need the project to protect their valuable farmland. But small river towns on the eastern side of the river say the project protects those influential farmers at the cost of their small communities. As a last-ditch effort, the opposition to the project is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to kill the project all together.


A big, metal gate designed in 1914 to protect Cairo, Ill., from flood waters marks the entrance to the town. Today, Cairo's population has dwindled to about 2,800 due in large part to floods, evacuations and a suffering economy.
Credit Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

Lynn Bock is the attorney for the St. John Levee and Drainage District in New Madrid, Mo. He lives at the southern end of the floodplain. Part of the levee system there follows the Mississippi River path. On the other side of the levee are thousands of acres of productive farmland.

"When you look at these fields, that's our strip mall. That's our economy in this part of the world," Bock says. "We make it or don't make it based on how farmers do."

The levee system here is part of a $165 million dollar project called the New Madrid Floodway Project that's designed to protect the land around the Mississippi River.

The area is part of a seven-county region that produces a third of Missouri’s agriculture economy. Farmers grow millions of dollars' worth of soybeans, corn, cotton and rice here.

The levee system protects some of the most productive farmland in Missouri that yields top notch soybeans, corn and wheat.
Credit Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

The farmland isn't without its weaknesses, though. During major Mississippi River floods, the Army Corps diverts the excess water into this floodplain, called the New Madrid Floodway. Construction on the project first began in 1928.

Nearly 90 years later, the Corps is close to completing the levee system by building an earthen wall along a 1,500-foot gap to separate the land from the river. This final levee essentially cordons off the lucrative farmland in the floodway, protecting the crops from most floods. That’s good for Missouri farmers west of the river, but maybe not so good for Illinois and Kentucky towns east of it.

"[With] what we can produce in the floodway itself, in [those] 133,000 acres of farmland, we're able to feed on an annual basis about 1.3 million people," says Kevin Mainord, farm owner and mayor of East Prairie, Mo. He says closing that gap is critical.

The levee system protects the farms most of the time, but every 75 years or so, a major flood slams the area. Then, the New Madrid Floodway has to be opened up and used as, well, a floodway.

"We did everything imaginable to help people during that situation because it was awful" -Cairo resident Monica Smith

That's what happened in the great flood of 2011. The floodwater was sweeping up to the edges of Cairo, Ill., a town of 2,800 with many low-income residents.

"We did everything imaginable to help people during that situation because it was awful," says Monica Smith, who works at the Cairo library. "People had to leave their homes that hadn't been out of their homes in years, and then some of them didn't have any place to go."

When the Army Corps planned to open up the floodway to help Cairo, the state of Missouri backed by members of U.S. Congress sued to stop it because the water level remained just inches below the mandated height. The state wanted to prevent damage to crops already planted.

Mayor Tyrone Coleman of Cairo, Ill., opposes the New Madrid Floodway project. A major flood in 2011 forced his town to evacuate.
Credit Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

For two days, the floodwaters crept up on Cairo. Mayor Tyrone Coleman says after the town was evacuated, some stayed behind to fight the flood.

"We had to utilize inmates from the maximum [security] prison, Corps of Engineer personnel, National Guard, and then there were a number of local citizens that helped with sand bagging," he says.

After two intense and difficult days, Missouri lost the legal challenge and the Corps opened the floodway. But some say it was too little, too late. And after that flood, many residents never returned to Cairo.

“We lost some people over it which is sad because they were good people,” Smith says. “And you hate to lose your good people.”

On the other side, with the floodway open, the water wiped away acres of crops. Many of those residents never returned either.

Monica Smith works at the Cairo library and witnessed the flood of 2011 firsthand.
Credit Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

"The floodway was destroyed — completely," Mainord says. "There are probably seven residents that are living there now, where there were hundreds before the flood of 2011."

Cairo gets a lot of the spotlight when it comes to the 2011 flood, but just 20 minutes up the road, the flood hit Olive Branch, Ill., hard, too.

“The agriculture impact was way worse here, than it was in the floodway,” engineer Jeff Denney says. “It was just all about Missouri and their farmers, but you’re doing the same thing to farmers here, you know?”

Environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation have also been fighting the project for years. They say cutting off the floodway with a plug would be catastrophic for the 50,000 acres of wetland that fish and waterfowl call home. 

Engineer Jeff Denney in Olive Branch, Ill., says the farms on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River were devastated, too.
Credit Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

Project engineer Danny Ward says the corps’ most recent environmental impact statement is meant to appease those concerns.

"We [sought] to balance the socioeconomic impacts associated with floods, as well as the environmental benefits derived from the flooding," he says.

The environmental impact statements have come under fire for not going far enough to address the concerns of independent scientists. The most recent report released in March is criticized for using flawed models, underestimating the impact of wetlands and not clearly showing the project’s economic benefits would exceed the cost to taxpayers.

"We're actually mandated by federal law to operate the floodway and we will continue to operate it." - Army Corps Engineer Danny Ward

Bottom line, many in the river towns are concerned farmers backed by powerful politicians on the Missouri side are winning the battle to protect their farmland at the cost of their communities. They say there is no guarantee that gap closure won’t affect them and that future lawsuits won’t delay the floodway operation again.  Ward disagrees.

“It’s not like if we were to build the closure we would not operate the floodway anymore,” he says. “We’re actually mandated by federal law to operate the floodway and we will continue to operate it.”

But Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman, who had a front-row seat to the devastation in 2011, isn't buying it.

“If this was a viable project, then it wouldn't have gone beyond that 60 year period to make it happen,” he says. “Because it is controversial and because of the dynamics of what can happen behind something like the tragedy that had taken place, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what's happening here.”

As a final play, Cairo has teamed up with other river towns and conservation groups to ask the Environmental Protection Agency to use part of the Clean Water Act to kill the entire project. If vetoed, it would be the 14th project shut down under the act since 1981.

Shortage in Rich Land: What is the Bootheel? from Kristofor Husted on Vimeo.