Environmental and civil rights groups are opposing a Mississippi River levee project that was first proposed 60 years ago. They fear that the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway – a 1,500-foot-long levee – would protect farmland in Missouri, but make homes in Illinois more susceptible to flooding. Richard Grigsby, president of the Alexander-Pulaski NAACP branch in Cairo, says a lot of the people living there are black, so it’s a civil rights issue, but it isn’t just about race.
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“You talk about civil rights and you gotta understand that it’s not only black people that are gonna be affected. White people are gonna be affected too,” he said. “If white people lose their property – a home or whatever – what are you gonna call that? That’s the same thing as if a black person loses his.”
The levees are designed to be blown up to allow farmland to flood in order to protect residential communities, but they rarely are. In 2011, a levee was blown up to save Cairo for the first time since 1937, but not before Missouri sued to prevent that. Grigsby fears that building the new levee will make it politically harder to blow holes in the levee system when needed to protect communities.
Environmentalists say the levee would close one of the few connections between the river and its flood plain and provides wetlands for fish spawning and wildlife.
The levee project has been in the works since 1954. It carries a price tag now of $165 million. Missouri agricultural interests want to see the land better protected from flooding so the region can reap more economic benefits from the farmland.
Grigsby and the environmentalists who oppose the project have communicated their civil rights concerns to the federal government.