The Mississippi River, one of the hallmarks of American landscape, is no longer the expansive, grand river it once was. Decades of constructing levees, dams and other systems for managing floods have whittled it down to a series of pools, dramatically altering its ecosystem.
Changes like these have prompted the environmental group American Rivers to rank the Middle Mississippi River as the third most endangered river in the nation. The ranking came out Wednesday in the group's annual report on endangered rivers.
Eileen Fretz, director of flood management at American Rivers, said the river is now a concern to both public safety and the environment because of the increased use of levees and other structures that are designed to make the Mississippi usable for industry. She pointed to a particular project the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed that will make a change to the New Madrid Floodway.
The Corps of Engineers wants to close off a gap on the floodway in Southeast Missouri and build another levee. The levee is how the corps intends to address the increasing number of floods in the region. Fretz said disrupting the river’s access to its banks is a threat to local wildlife.
“It’s important that the river be able to access the floodplain so that fish and wildlife can reproduce, find food, rest during their migrations and basically be able to grow,” she said.
Moreover, Fretz said, studies do not suggest that levees and other river rerouting structures are effective against flooding.
Fretz said if the Corps’ proposed plans for the New Madrid Floodway go through, it will encourage building more structures to manipulate the river’s current which will further disturb the river's natural habitat. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could not be reached for comment.
“If we’re closing off the bottom of the floodway and building this levee, it’s going to lead to more intense use and development within the new floodway,” Fretz said.
American Rivers is working with other local advocacy groups, such as the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, to enhance public awareness and lessen the number of levees and dams put into the Mississippi River.