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Time to End the New Madrid Levee Folly

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recently released its seventh study of a proposal to destroy tens of thousands of acres of important wetlands while increasing the flooding risk for a dozen communities along the Mississippi River. The Corps proposes to spend $165 million taxpayer dollars on this effort.

This folly of a project has never moved forward for one simple reason: it is a subsidy for a handful of wealthy farmers that is not in the best interest of the American people.

The Corps’s proposal is quite straightforward and yet phenomenally difficult to comprehend. The agency would like to build a sixty-foot high, quarter-mile long levee that would block the Mississippi River from entering an area that has been designated as a floodway for eight decades.

The effects of this project could be catastrophic for communities along the river in three states. In the spring of 2011, the state of Missouri, acting on behalf of landowners in the region, sued to stop use of the floodway during the record-breaking flooding along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Once the Corps was allowed to divert water into the floodway, river levels dropped quickly. But the delay was at least partially responsible for devastating flooding in Olive Branch, IL.

Additional economic development in the area will only make it more difficult to operate the floodway to protect communities—as it was designed to do.

This floodway is the last remaining area in Missouri where the Mississippi River is allowed to regularly connect to its floodplain. The floodway provides many benefits: it filters pollution, stores floodwaters, and is important habitat for waterfowl and for fish populations in this part of Mississippi River.

The courts have not been kind to this project. Back in 2007, a U.S. District Court found the Corps had justified the project using “arbitrary and capricious reasoning—manipulating models and changing definitions where necessary—to make this project seem compliant with the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it is not.” The judge also took the unusual step of demanding the Army Corps dismantle the portion of the project that had already been built.

The Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have also long taken a dim view of the proposal, which has been kicking around in various incarnations since the 1950s.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s preliminary review of this latest version found the project would result in “unacceptable losses of nationally significant fish, wildlife, and aquatic resources.”

Back in 2011, the Department of Interior tried to discourage the Corps from reviving the project, saying, “the Department does not believe it is in the public interest to engage in continued environmental analysis of this project.”

Even Corps staffers have quietly expressed concern about the New Madrid Levee. In 2002, the then-Chief of the Corps’ Legislative Management Branch described the New Madrid Levee in an email as an “economic dud with huge environmental consequences.”

And yet here we are again. The Corps, along with their local supporters, are once again pushing for the levee, once again disregarding the significant negative economic and environmental impacts. And yet these local entities are not contributing any of their own money towards this brazen effort to increase their land values.

All of this points to the dire need to overhaul the Corps planning process. Right now the Corps has an estimated $60-80 billion backlog of projects—many of which are critical restoration and flood control efforts—and yet this boondoggle somehow manages to rise to the top?

Many in Congress apparently believe having other federal agencies review Corps projects is merely red tape that slows construction down. However, in this case, the outside reviews have proven their worth by shining some light on a project that makes little sense, environmentally or economically. This is obviously a benefit, unless you happen to own land in the floodway.

The rest of us can clearly see that the New Madrid Levee is a foolish idea and a waste of taxpayer dollars. The Obama Administration should make sure that common sense prevails in Missouri’s Bootheel by vetoing the project outright.

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