The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

Cairo To Caruthersville

The St. John’s Bayou/New Madrid Floodway Project

The Mississippi River once experienced seasonal floods that spread out over its floodplain, creating a mosaic of backwaters, wetlands, and sloughs. These periodic floods were the driving force behind robust and diverse ecosystems that were home to an amazing array of fish, birds, and wildlife. The Missouri “bootheel”, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, was once one of the nation’s largest and richest wetland areas. Big Oak Tree State Park is a testament to this. As people altered and harnessed the Mississippi River to advance navigation and reduce flood damages, these floodplain ecosystems were drained and cut off from the river with levees and other structures. The New Madrid Floodway within the bootheel was also drained for intensive agricultural production. Despite these modifications, a gap in the bottom of the floodway levee system provides a critically important natural connection that allows the river to sustain vital backwater floodplain habitat, including bottomland hardwood forests that are home to bald cypress, nuttall oak, and tupelo gum. The floodway is critical for migrating ducks, geese, and shorebirds like the golden-plover. It supports a rich and regionally distinctive fishery that includes an important white bass fishery and rare species like the golden topminnow, chain pickerel, and banded pygmy sunfish. The gap in the floodway levee system is the key to supporting this diverse backwater floodplain.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to cut off the last connection between the Mississippi River and its natural backwater habitat in the State of Missouri by constructing a new 1,500 foot levee across the gap at the bottom of the New Madrid Floodway. This levee would prevent water from reaching 75,000 acres of floodplain habitat, eliminating the most important spawning and rearing habitat for fish in the middle Mississippi River and destroying habitat that is essential for an array of birds, waterfowl, and mammals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly called upon the Corps to stop this project because it will cause, “dramatic losses of nationally significant fish and wildlife resources that cannot be mitigated,” and will, “greatly diminish rare and unique habitats found in southeast Missouri.” Furthermore, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said the project, “will cause the greatest loss of wetlands functions in EPA Region 7’s history.” Many outside experts agree that the adverse impacts of the project are so significant that they cannot be mitigated, and believe that the project will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the health of this portion of the Mississippi River.


In addition to the significant and unacceptable harm to fish and wildlife, the proposed levee puts river communities at increased risk by promoting more intense use and development in the New Madrid Floodway, which in turn will make it even more politically difficult to activate the floodway during catastrophic floods. The New Madrid Floodway is used as a relief valve when high water in the Mississippi threatens nearby towns like Cairo, IL. During flooding in 2011, a last minute lawsuit attempted to stop the Corps from taking this important action. When the floodway was finally activated, water levels in the Mississippi River dropped 2.7 feet at Cairo in just 48 hours, sparing the city from potentially devastating flood damage. The Corps is currently finalizing an Environmental Impact Statement for this fundamentally flawed project that was first dreamt up more than 60 years ago. Cutting the river off from its floodplain would destroy critical fish and wildlife habitat and is an entirely unacceptable practice for modern floodplain management. The New Madrid Floodway Project, as proposed, is so environmentally destructive that it simply should not be built. The Corps should abandon this project by selecting the “no action” alternative in its final EIS. If the Corps refuses to abandon this environmentally devastating project, the Environmental Protection Agency should veto it under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. (American Rivers)


The St. Louis Post Dispatch editorial board called for the EPA to drive a stake through the heart of the New Madrid Project and kill it once and for all. “The $165 million project already has been halted once before. In 2007, a federal judge wrote of it: ‘The Corps of Engineers has resorted to 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.’ Still, thanks to deep-pocketed special interests and the lawmakers who serve them, the project lives, at least on the drawing board. That’s why environmental groups are urging the Environmental Protection Agency to use a provision of the Clean Water Act that allows a veto of certain corps projects. The inextricable fact is that the Mississippi River floods. Decades of government attempts to control the river have only proved that Mother Nature always wins. Trying to tell the river it can’t go where it naturally wants to, particularly in the unpredictable era of climate change, is truly a fool’s errand. The EPA should do exactly what the environmental groups are asking: Kill the New Madrid Floodway project and drive a stake through its heart.” (The St. Louis Post Dispatch, Dec 30, 2014).


New Madrid

There are several options in New Madrid for paddlers to make landing and resupply and enjoy the offerings of the city. The most obvious is the New Madrid Boat Ramp, but this puts you further away from walking into town, and also leaves your vessel more exposed to passers by. The better choice might be to make landing along the New Madrid Mississippi River Walk near or under the Observation Deck. This will give you the easiest access to the Levee Road and South Main Street. Main Street leads you through a flood wall off the levee into the heart of downtown. First stop is the New Madrid Historical Museum, (with its great earthquake exhibits). Also within walking distance is the post office, the library, convenience stores, a hamburger joint, a pizza place, the Higgerson School Historic Site, the Hart-Stepp House, and other businesses in the downtown area of New Madrid. There’s no grocery store in downtown New Madrid, but you can find staple items at several convenience stores or the pharmacy. The closest grocery is the Ramey Supermarket which is found towards the edge of town on Dawson Road, approximately 2 mile roundtrip walk.


889 RBD New Madrid Boat Ramp

New Madrid Boat Ramp is the best boat ramp in the region, boasting a double wide concrete ramp with concrete steps built in on one side to facilitate climbing up and down in muddy conditions. This would be the best place in New Madrid to start or end your expedition. Otherwise you can pull over anywhere along the Riverfront. Stop somewhere near the observation deck for closest access to Main Street and New Madrid’s offerings.   Any paddlers stopping here should pull their vessel all of the way out of the water and secure it tightly. Remove all valuables. Take your vessel with you if leaving for any extended period of time (such as an overnight in a hotel). Unfortunately in these modern times, people are not as respectful of private property along the river as they used to be. Several years ago (Nov, 2012) a man paddling the river had his canoe stolen from this location, after leaving it for several days to return to St. Louis to resupply. He had chained and locked the canoe to a handrail. A young couple became stranded in New Madrid after experiencing a similar situation. We have heard stories of vessels being stolen from Davenport, St. Louis, Caruthersville, Vicksburg and Memphis. Best practice: carry your vessel with you! If you need to overnight near New Madrid, consider camping on the river away from town. Your best camping would be found paddling back upstream one mile to the base of the Morrison Towhead (beautiful low or medium water campsite). Or cross over to the Kentucky Point Bar where miles and open beaches await you. It's almost a mile crossing in high water, so paddle upstream a ways and then and make a strong ferry crossing. You could also stay on the New Madrid Bar. Not as aesthetically pleasing as the other choices, but better than a boring motel room!

888.5 - 886.3 RBD New Madrid Bar

WARNING: tall back channel dike creates serious waterfall between 20 and 30CG. Proceed carefully down back channel and scout before running. The New Madrid Bar extends over two miles along the outside of the main channel in Kentucky Bend. Stay main channel below medium water 25CG. When the river rises above 25CG you can run back channel and enjoy a different view of New Madrid, and also access the 2nd New Madrid Boat Ramp (RBD 888).   New Madrid Bar is the long skinny island you see looking downstream from the New Madrid waterfront.   The top end is surrounded by rip rap, and the backside gets cut off until high water by a tall cross channel dike. There is a good sandbar halfway down the island on both channels, and good sandbars bottom end in low water, but the view downstream and the noise from the heavy industry can be bothersome. While not as attractive as other islands and sandbars, New Madrid Bar nonetheless makes for a suitable picnic or campsite.