The Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE) has been working to preserve the natural value of Missouri’s floodplains for over 30 years. Lawsuits filed by MCE resulted in a consent agreement forcing the Corps of Engineers to regulate navigable waters up primary tributaries to the ordinary high water mark. MCE was critical in the effort to prevent development of a sports multiplex in the Missouri River floodplain that would have moved the professional football and baseball stadiums out of downtown St. Louis. MCE remains involved with floodplain issues on several levels and in various locations.
St. Johns Bayou & New Madrid Floodway
Near the Bootheel is an area shown on maps as the New Madrid Floodway. The area was designated a Floodway since the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River which flooded 27,000 square miles and left over half a million people homeless and killed 246 people. This designation has a specific meaning. If necessary, the Corps of Engineers can legally divert floodwater through the floodway to relieve pressure on the river with the intent of lowering the flood height and reducing damage along the river. There are good reasons why this area in the Bootheel was selected. It is at the confluence of the UMR and the Ohio River and part of the historic floodplain called the Great Swamp. The 2.5 million acres of wetland forests has been almost completely drained and cut-off from the river by large levees except for about 1,500 feet at the south end near the town of New Madrid – one of the few sections of the river’s floodplain still connected to the river.
The Corps of Engineers, nudged along by Missouri politicians, is pursuing a flood control project called the St. John’s Bayou – New Madrid Floodway project closing that last 1,500 feet of floodplain connection at the south end of the Floodway. Although it purports to be a flood protection project for a small town called East Prairie, the project is really being pursued to protect farmland owned by a small number of landowners within the New Madrid Floodway. Focusing on East Prairie provides some community development “spin”, diverting attention from the true beneficiaries. The project actually contains two parts, a flood control portion for East Prairie and closing the levee at the end of the Floodway. They are separate projects because East Prairie is not located in the Floodway; its flooding is typically caused by water from outside of the floodway. People living in East Prairie who farm within the Floodway would benefit by the levee closure. This levee closure project is designed to control flooding that may occur every two years or so,however, would do nothing to curtail the level of flooding which occurred in 2011, or even a 50-year flood event. The project selected has a questionable Benefit-Cost ratio of about 1.2 and creates large environmental concerns resulting in a bad deal for taxpayers, although providing the most benefits to the Floodway farmers. The local cost share is being funded through the USDA with Federal community development taxpayer dollars, so those benefiting will have no cost obligation what-so-ever. Also of interest is a major landowner in New Madrid with considerable opportunity to lobby for this project. This landowner is located near the project area and is a member of the Mississippi River Commission.
Casino at Columbia Bottom in Spanish Lake
After 18 months of work by the Save the Confluence Coalition, on December 1 the Missouri Gaming Commission announced Cape Girardeau will get Missouri’s last casino license, ending plans for a casino at Columbia Bottom in Spanish Lake, at the Chain of Rocks in St. Louis and at Sugar Creek in Kansas City.
The newspapers reported: “Asked why St. Louis lost out, Mathewson [Gaming Commission Chair] said: “We received stacks and stacks of opposition, just baskets of it, from the area. We also had a lot of positives. And I think probably the biggest single concern there is, is that market is already well-covered with casinos.”
Thousands of Missourians told the Missouri Gaming Commission to look outside St. Louis for a home for the next casino.
The original site that sparked the controversy was 377 acres adjacent to the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in north St. Louis County at Spanish Lake near the Confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The plan placed a casino and shopping complex in the Mississippi River floodplain in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway used by migratory birds.
The Save the Confluence Coalition began its advocacy work toward victory in August of 2009. By the time of the Gaming Commission’s decision, the Coalition represented more than 100,000 Missourians. The casino developers met strong resistance from the Save the Confluence coalition at every turn. Organizations whomunited with Save the Confluence included: Audubon Missouri, BOTT Radio Network, Chatham Bible Church, The Confluence Partnership, Conservation Federation of Missouri, Glasgow Village Improvement Association, Grace Baptist Church, Mississippi Valley Duck Hunters Association, Missouri Clergy Against Gambling Expansion, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, National Audubon Society, Old Jamestown Association, Riverview Drive Improvement Association, St. Louis Audubon Society, St. Louis Christian Chinese Community Service Center, St. Louis Metro Baptist Association—70 Churches in St. Louis County, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Sierra Club: Eastern Missouri, Spanish Lake Community Association, Webster Groves Nature Study Society, and West Side Missionary Baptist Church.
Between the unified opposition and the bad economics, the casino developers faced difficult odds. Save the Confluence commissioned an economic analysis of the casino developer’s plan. The analysis clearly illustrated the St. Louis market was saturated — any new casino would cannibalize existing casinos. The new River City Casino which opened in south St. Louis in May 2009 already demonstrated this negative impact on revenues compared to competing enterprises. Casino executives from St. Charles County testified against a St. Louis license because of this market impact. The Missouri Deppartment of Economic Development issued an Economic Analysis in late November that concluded that any benefits of a St. Louis casino would be offset by losses at existing area casinos.
Buildinga casino next to one of the most prized natural areas in the region likewise proved a failing. One of the driving factors in the defeat of the Columbia Bottom casino was how it would undermine the $170 million investment in natural areas, parks, museums and conservation areas in the Confluence region.
This David vs. Goliath struggle of the Save the Confluence coalition vs. the casino developers ultimately prevailed because the numbers were on our side. However, it was our job to shine a bright light on these facts by continually feeding this information to the press through press conferences, releases, and letters to the editor. The results were dozens of articles that consistently linked any stories about the casinos with the Save the Confluence opposition and the very real threat to this natural area. On a second front, we continually reiterated the bad economic facts to the gaming commission with the postcards mentioned above but also private letters, phone calls and comments made at public hearings from lawmakers and community leaders who were asked to and did speak out.
Some of the highlights of the campaign included nearly 50 people picketing the County Council when it made its rezoning decision, KETC’s production of a video about the Confluence area, a letter from filmmaker Ken Burns in support of the Confluence, and a tour of the site one morning with the herons gliding over its waters. And who could forget the eagle suit at Eagle Days?
The developers seeking the casino at Columbia Bottom fell out when they failed to submit a complete application by the Gaming Commission’s fall deadline. It was then that the Koman family’s proposal for a casino at the Chain of Rocks Bridge in north St. Louis became the top St. Louis candidate for the license. Riverview Drive Improvement Association, which had successfully fought other casino attempts, was joined by a second city neighborhood organization, the Chain of Rocks Community Association in opposition to the casino plan. As the only St. Louis city location, the Aldermen, the Mayor and other boosters joined with Koman. Nevertheless, the Gaming Commission’s December 1 decision eliminated that option as the final license was granted to Cape Girardeau.
More Good News
Great Rivers Greenway announced December 22 that it acquired 11.8 acres of the undeveloped property at the Chain of Rocks Bridge for $1.25 million from the Koman family, pursuant to a previous agreement. The newly acquired property, which has been used with the Koman Family’s permission for public functions in the past, will eventually be used to provide greater public access and additional amenities at the bridge and trailhead.
Save the Confluence supporters are still aware of threats to the Columbia Bottom area and are working to find ways to protect the floodplain for agriculture and low-density uses. Email klogansmith at moenviron.org to get involved.
Other Floodplains Actions:
MCE has initiated a campaign to introduce and pass comprehensive floodplain management legislation in the Missouri legislature. A survey of floodplain management laws in Missouri and six other Midwestern states shows that Missouri lacks any jurisdiction over its floodplains and even prohibits local governments from denying development permits in the floodplains. A comprehensive state floodplain management program could discourage and prevent the most destructive and dangerous development projects and save taxpayers millions in future disaster relief.