- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 16, 2014

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A levee project in the Missouri Bootheel region would increase the flood risk in predominantly black communities in Illinois, several government and civic leaders of those communities said in a letter to President Barack Obama on Tuesday.

The New Madrid Floodway project was first proposed in 1954 as a means of protecting an area of rich Missouri agricultural land from frequent flooding from the Mississippi River. It would close a quarter-mile-long gap in the southern end of a network of levees. The price tag on the 60-foot-tall levee is now estimated at $165 million.

Environmental groups have opposed the project for decades, saying it would threaten wetlands and habitat for fish and wildlife. Nearly 100 environmental groups sent a letter to Obama on Tuesday renewing that concern. That letter suggested that the Environmental Protection Agency use its authority to veto the project through a rarely used provision in the Clean Water Act.

In a separate letter to the president, community leaders said the levee would cause greater flooding concerns in Cairo, Illinois, and other predominantly black communities in the region.

Richard Grigsby, president of the NAACP branch in the Cairo area, called it a “civil rights issue.”

“Federal investments in this area should focus on keeping people safe and creating economic equality, not on giving even more subsidies to a handful of landowners operating in a designated flood zone,” Grigsby said.

Flooding is common in the flat Bootheel region. During the massive flood of 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intentionally blasted a hole in the nearby Birds Point levee, flooding thousands of acres of Missouri farmland and thereby reducing the river level just enough to spare Cairo, a town where 72 percent of the 2,600 residents are black.

Danny Ward, project manager for the Corps of Engineers, said the levee would generate about twice the economic benefit of the construction cost. He said a final decision on whether to move ahead with the project has not been made, and there is no timetable.

Even if the levee is built, the Birds Point levee would still be subject to an intentional breach if flooding became severe enough to warrant it, Ward said.

The National Wildlife Federation said the EPA rarely invokes its veto authority, doing so on just 13 projects since 1972.

Melissa Samet, senior water resources counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, said the levee project would eliminate the last place where the Mississippi River can flow into its natural flood plain in Missouri, draining tens of thousands of acres of wetland.

A federal judge ruled against the levee project in 2007 over concerns raised by environmentalists. The 2011 flood renewed interest in protecting the Missouri farmland and the project was resurrected.

Ward said a final environmental impact statement must be formulated before a decision is made whether to proceed.

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