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Environmental Groups Sue Corps Of Engineers, Claim River Barriers Worsen Flooding

Dikes on the Mississippi River
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Five environmental groups across the country say that dikes and other barriers that aid navigation on the Mississippi River have damaged wildlife and worsened floods in recent years.

Environmental organizations in Missouri and Illinois have filed a federal lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers, alleging that dikes and other structures the agency has built in the Mississippi River have caused major damage to the environment. 

The federal agency has been working on a project that uses dikes and other barriers to maintain a 9-foot-deep channel that allows barges to transport grain and other goods on the Mississippi River. But environmentalists cite research that has shown that the structures can constrict the river, causing water to flow higher and faster during floods.

The suit, filed last week in East St. Louis, seeks to block the Corps of Engineers from building more of the structures between St. Louis and Cairo. The groups are asking the court to order the Corps to study how the structures affect the environment. 

The Corps needs to do a better job of protecting wildlife and people who live along the river, said Heather Navarro, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. 

“We have more devastating floods because we have managed the river in such a way that the water now has less room and it’s moving much faster,” Navarro said. “You can’t restore the river and maintain the barge channel and protect farms with high levees all at the same time. We’ve got to take tough choices.”

Changing the natural shape and flow of the Mississippi River to accommodate navigation has also caused people to lose their connection to the river, Navarro said. 

“How often do people go down to the Mississippi River to recreate? All the other benefits and uses of the river have been sacrificed so that we can have this barge channel,” she said. 

The suit was filed by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, Prairie Rivers Network, American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation. The St. Louis District of the Corps declined to comment. 

Researchers at Southern University Illinois-Carbondale have found that dikes, levees and dams have contributed to worse floods over time. Some of these structures are more than a century old. Building one of them doesn’t affect the river much, but building many over several decades has raised water levels, said Jonathan Remo, a geographer at SUIC. 

“The floodwaters are definitely coming in at a higher level than they did 100 years ago,” Remo said. 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.