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Messenger: Answer to Missouri River flood control found in serene waters of Cora Island

Messenger: Answer to Missouri River flood control found in serene waters of Cora Island

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Mike Clark

Mike Clark paddles a canoe through the Big Muddy Refuge around Cora Island during high water in March 2019. Post-Dispatch photo by Tony Messenger.

CONFLUENCE POINT • Mike Clark has a rule for the river guides who work for him.

“We don’t fight the river,” says the longtime St. Louisan known locally as Big Muddy Mike.

Clark has probably spent more time paddling the Missouri and Mississippi rivers than anybody not named Lewis or, um, Clark.

On Thursday, I tagged along as Clark scouted river levels in the slow-motion disaster already known as the Flood of 2019. The water was high, but not 1993-level high. And there’s a reason for that.

It becomes obvious in the calm water that snakes around Cora Island. There, in a channel dug by the Army Corps of Engineers and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are about 1,400 acres that are part of the Big Muddy Refuge. It’s part wildlife preservation and part flood control, and as the water furiously sped past in the Missouri River’s main channel nearby, it seemed like the most serene place on earth.

Rising water seeped into wetlands and meandered around copse after copse of willow and cottonwood trees. The songs of red-winged blackbirds filled the air. A bald eagle swooped by with a stick in its beak. He landed in the massive nest he was building high above the confluence.

On the day I was there, Gov. Mike Parson wrote an opinion piece about the flood that has devastated farmland in northwest Missouri, closed Air Force bases in Nebraska and swallowed small river towns in South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas.

“We must begin a serious discussion about how we improve flood control on the Missouri River,” Parson wrote.

This place, right here, is where that discussion must begin.

When Missouri politicians issue bromides after flooding, they almost always focus on two easy targets. U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley hit them both last week in one statement that could have been pulled from the archives of pretty much any flood since 1944: “The Corps is hamstrung on the one hand by radical environmentalist lobbyists that are forcing the agency to prioritize wildlife over farmers. This is made worse by the fact that Congress has failed to give the Corps a clear ranking of priorities or clear orders on how to achieve them.”

Without the Corps and the environmentalists — people like Greg Poleski who not only pushed for the Cora Island preservation but helped plant the cottonwoods that now help sustain the wetlands — the Big Muddy Refuge wouldn’t exist. And that means the water on the other side of the island would be flowing faster. The flagpole at Confluence Point that marks the 1993 high-water point might be under water. More than just a few roads in St. Louis and St. Charles County would be inundated with water and closed.

This is the part of flood control that the Dutch long ago figured out, that the nation’s experts pointed to in 1993 in the Galloway report, that Poleski and Clark and others like them speak about every chance they get, that still escapes the politicians who know they have to say something after a flood but don’t really want to do the heavy lifting to stop the next one. It’s the lesson that Clark imparts to his young guides.

Don’t fight the river. Give it room to roam.

That was why the Big Muddy Refuge was created by Congress, as a result of the Flood of 1993. Today, along the Missouri River between Kansas City and St. Louis, more than 16,000 acres are set aside where chutes and channels allow the Missouri River to reclaim the floodplain where it used to roam before the federal government deepened its channel, strengthened its banks and added wing dikes and other man-made structures that sped the water up in an attempt to create navigation commerce.

But the scientists who led the call for the creation of the Big Muddy Refuge imagined as much as 60,000 acres being preserved and returned to wetlands in Missouri alone. Congress not only hasn’t finished the job, every time there is another flood it forgets the lessons of the previous one, and rattles sabers about raising levees rather than letting the river do its thing.

There was a time when the owners of Cora Island produced corn and soybeans on a farm of rich bottomland soil. It was protected by an agricultural levee, most of which is still there. You can see it on both sides of the channel, where the Corps cut a permanent hole in it, to let the Missouri River go where it wanted to. There, the water rises so it doesn’t do so in other nearby farms. There, the water fills the wetlands instead of covering urban highways. There, the power of nature provides the flood control that Missouri’s politicians say they want.

We’ve known that since at least 1999, when the creation of the Big Muddy Refuge began in earnest, when a federal official signed the legislation at a ceremony in St. Charles County that signaled a change in strategy.

It was time, said William Hartwig of the Fish and Wildlife Service, to start “cooperating with the river.”

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