The Mississippi Flyway and Flood Management Conflict

A NextGen Blog post by Johanna Mitra, Stony Brook University.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts students’ essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Johanna Mitra is currently an undergraduate student at Stony Brook University. She is majoring in ecosystems and human impact with a focus on wildlife conservation and minoring in geospatial science. This is part 2 in a blog series on migratory birds and the Flyways of the Americas. Read part 1, The Raritan River Basin and The Atlantic Flyway.

The “Flyways of the Americas” are four migratory pathways which hundreds of neotropical bird species use each year to travel between their breeding grounds to the north and their wintering grounds in South America. The Mississippi Flyway follows one of the world’s largest freshwater river systems, following the entire length of the Mississippi River and extending for many miles around its multiple tributaries.

The Mississippi River Basin itself is so large that one of its tributaries, the Missouri River, extends into the Central Flyway which traces avian travel west of the Mississippi Flyway. These two flyways converge at the Mississippi River Delta, where the 2,350-mile-long Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico.[mfn]The National Wildlife Federation[/mfn] For the 325 species of migratory birds making the long annual trek between North and South America along the Mississippi and Central Flyways, the river basin’s ample freshwater resources are a welcome sight.[mfn]The National Audubon Society[/mfn] Like the Atlantic Flyway, the highly productive rivers, coastline, marshes, and wetlands of the Mississippi River Basin offer the ideal environment for birds to feed, rest, breed and raise their young.

Great Blue Heron in Lower Mississippi Basin. These partial migrants move between Canadian breeding grounds to the Caribbean.

Species like the prothonotary warbler, cerulean warbler, and swallow-tailed kite find shelter in the Mississippi’s streams and wooded river valleys during the summers.[mfn]The National Audubon Society[/mfn] Others, like the mottled duck and little blue heron, rely on its marshes and ponds to forage for small fish and freshwater invertebrates.[mfn]The National Audubon Society[/mfn] All of these bird species have been designated as “priority birds” for conservation by the National Audubon Society as human activity within the river basin puts pressure on their habitats.

The Mississippi River Delta is perhaps one of the most critical areas for the two flyways. Its complex wetland ecosystem hosts as much as 70% of all the waterfowl from the Mississippi and Central Flyways over the winter, and serves as an annual migratory stopover point for nearly 100 million birds.[mfn]Restore the Mississippi River Delta[/mfn] One popular Delta destination for birders is the Atchafalaya’s Lake Martin, breeding site of the spectacularly-brilliant roseate spoonbills.

Roseate Spoonbill, Atchafalaya Basin

The Yazoo Backwater Project

Despite the richness of the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta’s biodiversity, its history of flooding has posed a major problem to the region’s inhabitants and their extensive fields of cotton and other crops. Flood events along the Mississippi River have become more severe and unpredictable due to modifications to the river’s flow and increased development around its banks, as well as increased and heavier precipitation events associated with climate change.[mfn]Cusick, David[/mfn]

Road flooded in the Mississippi River flood of 1993West Alton, Missouri

As a result, many residents of in this delta, formed by the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers, have called for the reinstatement of the Yazoo Backwater Area Pumps Project, a previously-cancelled relief project. These plans involve building a pumping station in a region north of the delta, which could pump out large amounts of excess water during periods of high waters on the Mississippi.[mfn]Environmental Protection Agency[/mfn] In 2008, the EPA vetoed the project due to its “unacceptable adverse effects on fishery areas and wildlife,” estimating that 67,000 acres of wetlands would be negatively affected.[mfn]Environmental Protection Agency[/mfn]

In 2020, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers revisited and approved the proposal. The project proves to be just as controversial today as it was in 2008, with many environmental groups fearing what the project might mean for migratory birds and native wildlife, while farmers and landowners continue to face ongoing flooding damages.

Atchafalaya Basin water-level management pumping station on canalsouth of the Yazoo Delta

Who Would Be Affected?

A number of organizations dedicated to the environmental health of the Mississippi Flyway argue that, should the Yazoo Pumps project be completed, the effects would be detrimental to the 257 bird species relying on the Yazoo Backwater Area.[mfn]McGlashen, Andy[/mfn] They suggest that key wetland functions would be significantly degraded and an estimated 10 million migratory birds in the spring and another 18 million in the winter would face habitat loss.[mfn]McGlashen, Andy[/mfn] They also believe that the Yazoo Pumps themselves won’t be entirely effective. The Army Corp’s most recent data shows that “even with the pumps installed, 82 percent to 89 percent of flooded lands would remain underwater.”[mfn]McGlashen, Andy[/mfn]

For the region’s homeowners, business owners and farmers who have experienced the flooding firsthand, however, the Yazoo Backwater Pumps project offers a solution that could prevent further damage to their homes and livelihoods. John Ruskey, a Mississippi River guide at Quapaw Canoe Company (a NWNL partner), described how the their office, located in the floodplains of the Sunflower River, was flooded in 2016 as a result of intense rainfall. Ruskey says that the company is still recovering from those effects today, especially after having to vacate the premises and rebuild again. He notes that it’s difficult to blame the people who live in the region for wanting the project to be completed.[mfn]Ruskey, John. Personal Interview. January 26, 2021[/mfn]

A Sainte Genevieve, Missouri, home during The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1993

In 2019, 500,000 acres of land covering six counties within the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta – 200,000 of which are farmland – were flooded for 88 days. This was the longest period of high-water levels in the Mississippi since 1927.[mfn]Rozier, Alex[/mfn] Such extremes have spurred government officials to re-assess the potential economic and physical damages to the region and its people if the flooding is left unchecked. To those vulnerable, the $400 million that this project is estimated to cost seems a reasonable price to pay.[mfn]Pettus, Emily Wagster[/mfn] Ruskey however, like many others, believes the money would be better spent on buy-outs of properties within the area, offering compensation to owners in order to “just allow the river to do what it does.” This approach, he says, could be beneficial for everyone involved, as the wetlands would function as natural flood protection for people downstream while also avoiding human-driven habitat loss. The answer, he believes, doesn’t lie in “spending the money on more engineering, but spending it on providing a solution for the people who are actually having the problem.”

[Read our 2008 and 2014 Voices of the River interviews with John Ruskey]

The Future of the Mississippi River Delta in the Flyways of the Americas

The contentious debate over the Yazoo Backwater Area Pumps project proves the difficulty of finding sustainable and effective flood-protection methods that can benefit people and wildlife equally. The Yazoo Pumps Project currently awaits funding; but a group of environmental organizations have already filed a lawsuit against the EPA for its change of position on the project.[mfn]National Audubon Society[/mfn] As well, the Upper Mississippi is facing its own share of floods as well, so implementing solutions that don’t significantly impact water flow and cause flooding further downstream is a growing challenge. As the dependence on the Mississippi River and its tributaries for agricultural, residential and industrial purposes continues to grow, it becomes increasingly vital that these ecosystems are also protected and maintained. The dependence on rivers and their wetlands and deltas by Mississippi Flyway migratory birds is just as critical as the dependence of humans on those very same natural resources.

A Quapaw canoe in backwater of the Mississippi River, near Natchez MS


“Conservation Groups to EPA: Assault on Law, Science, and Public Voice Will Not Be Tolerated.” National Audubon Society, Jan 12, 2021. Accessed on Jan 16, 2021 by JM.

Cusick, David. “Today’s Floods Occur along ‘a Very Different’ Mississippi River.” Scientific American, May 13, 2019. Accessed on Jan 16, 2021 by JM.

McGlashen, Andy. “EPA Pulls an About-Face, Green Lights Project That Will Damage Crucial Wetlands” National Audubon Society, Dec 9, 2020. Accessed on Jan 16, 2021 by JM.

Pettus, Emily Wagster. “Yazoo Backwater flood control project approved: But will it ever get built?” Clarion Ledger, Jan 15, 2021. Accessed on Jan 26, 2021 by JM.

Rozier, Alex. “The Homeland and the Wetlands: The Yazoo backwater fight rages.” Mississippi Today, May 15, 2019. Accessed on Jan 16, 2021 by JM.

“What’s at Stake: Wildlife” Restore the Mississippi River Delta, n.d. Accessed on Jan 14, 2021 by JM.

“Yazoo Backwater Area Pumps Project.” Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Accessed on Jan 16, 2021 by JM.

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