Wetland Anti-Flooding Projects Promoted Along Mississippi River

In March, hunting and conservation group Ducks Unlimited (DU) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI), made up of the mayors of more than 100 towns and cities along the Mississippi River. On September 14, DU and MRCTI held a joint press conference to tout the results of that partnership.

A PowerPoint presentation put together by Dr. Ellen Herbert, an ecosystem scientist with DU, and Michael Sertle, a regional biologist for DU, laid out 65 wetland project sites identified by the team. 

As Mississippi River floods happen more frequently and their effects increase in severity, the mayors of the MRCTI have worked on collaborative, whole-system approaches. Past floods have led to contentious relationships among towns. Some towns raised their floodwalls, only to have downstream towns accuse them of making flooding worse when it hit them. It’s now understood that instead of building higher floodwalls that act as a funnel, allowing wetlands or other areas adjacent to the river to be open to flooding reduces the severity of floods downstream. 

According to DU, “We have the shared goal of accelerating the pace of natural infrastructure project delivery, such as floodplain and backwater habitat restoration and enhancement, that increases waterfowl habitat, reduces exposure of cities and towns to flooding and provides economically important recreation opportunities along the corridor.” 

That dovetails perfectly with a primary goal of DU, which is to conserve—and where possible, to increase—habitats for ducks and other wildlife. This means increasing wetlands. One-third of MRCTI mayors are also members of Ducks Unlimited. 

Together, the projects identify 60,000 acres of flood storage over the 65 sites. “We’re excited about these projects, and we see a lot of co-benefits coming out of them,” said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of MRCTI, citing not just flood reduction and carbon storage but benefits to recreation, tourism and ecological restoration as well. 

In-House Team

Herbert describes her job as coordinating all the scientific activities and ecological activities at DU; “I do everything that isn’t ducks.” DU is a bit unusual among conservation organizations, Herbert told The Waterways Journal, because of the engineers and scientists on its staff. “We’ve always been a habitat-conservation group, and having a staff of engineers makes a huge difference,” she said. “We can offer a turnkey service.” She gives Wellenkamp, and the coalition of Mississippi River mayors full credit for bringing together the various groups and organizations in creative ways. “MRCTI’s goal is to identify enough risk reduction projects to make a significant difference in Mississippi River flood risk over the next decade,” she said. 

A key partner recruited by MRCTI is an environmental consulting group called Two Degrees Adapt, which helped “surgically” identify promising project sites, Herbert said. According to Two Degrees Adapt’s site, “After working with our team, you will have everything you need to adapt to the changing climate: a detailed strategy with quantified costs and benefits, connections to experts and tech providers and connections to financiers.” Two Degrees Adapt has been working with MRCTI since 2019, and it specifically focuses on the degree of flood risk mitigation each project offers. 

Where adjacent lands can’t be returned to wetland status, some towns and cities are allowing “free-flood” areas. The town of Kimmswick, Mo.,  deliberately leaves its boat dock areas open to flooding, while protecting other parts of the town. 

The presentation showed initial target areas to identify projects extending along the middle Mississippi River from Prairie du Chien, Wis., to Tiptonville, Tenn. It included 15 project sites, divided into three categories. Some are either shovel-ready or near completion; others are in planning stages; and some are possibilities ready for levee districts, cities or towns to further develop. 

The myriad benefits of wetlands mean a number of funding sources can be targeted: state fish and wildlife agencies, state or federal environmental regulators, economic development groups and more. That’s one of the things that Two Degrees Adapt helps sponsoring cities or towns with. Most projects also need to be permitted by the Corps of Engineers and/or other permitting agencies. 

Landowners along the river are eager to cooperate. A Wall Street Journal article noted that after the 2019 flood, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sought 3,600 acres of farmland in Iowa to return into wetlands, according to Larry Weber, co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center. Farmers offered up 26,000 acres—more than USDA could buy.

Since the September 14 conference, Herbert said, the DU team has identified a further 5,000 to 10,000 acres along the Mississippi River for possible project status. 

Herbert cautions that these projects don’t promise to end flooding—just mitigate some of its effects. “Now that we have this study done, we hope to ‘take the peak’ off the next 100-year flood,” said Wellenkamp.