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Floods, Ducks, and Development

Urban sprawl in historic river floodplains threatens waterfowl, people, and the environment
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Steeped in waterfowl hunting tradition, the Confluence is home to more than 200 established duck clubs, including such historic properties as Dardenne, Quivre, and Raccoon Ranch duck clubs, all founded in the early 1800s. Together, these clubs and others manage more than 31,000 acres of wetlands and cropland, comprising one of the largest privately owned waterfowl habitat complexes in the nation. Another 43,000 acres lie within national wildlife refuges, state conservation areas, and tracts owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Many of these properties are intensively managed public wetlands and consistently hold large concentrations of waterfowl and provide hunting opportunities for large numbers of hunters from the St. Louis area and beyond.

As its name accurately describes, the Confluence Floodplain is highly susceptible to flooding by the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. In 1993, the region was at the epicenter of the great Midwestern flood that devastated large swaths of America’s Heartland. More than 1,000 flood protection levees failed, 70,000 buildings were damaged, and 50 people lost their lives. Estimated damages totaled more than $12 billion, with $3 billion worth of damages occurring in Missouri. At its peak, the Confluence Floodplain held an estimated 260 billion gallons of floodwater, likely saving downtown St. Louis from catastrophic flooding.

For decades the Confluence Floodplain remained a little piece of heaven for waterfowl hunters. But as suburban growth from St. Louis has expanded ever north and westward in recent years, much of the region is now threatened by what until recently would have been an unlikely enemy: urban sprawl. Despite the devastation wrought by the 1993 flood, approximately 4,275 acres in the floodplain have been converted to commercial buildings, factories, and shopping malls. Commercial and residential projects that are either underway, or in the planning stages, threaten to convert another 14,000 additional acres in St. Louis, St. Charles, and Lincoln counties alone. This includes construction of a permanent levee that will allow development of a 1,600-acre business park (known as the Lakeside 370 Project) in close proximity to several historic duck clubs, and planning continues for the expansion of a nearby airport to accommodate jet aircraft. If allowed to proceed, these and other floodplain development will not only directly destroy thousands of acres of valuable farmland, forest, and wetlands, but accompanying light pollution, traffic noise, and other disturbance could sharply limit waterfowl use on adjacent duck clubs and publicly managed wetlands. In addition, new levees will decrease the natural floodwater storage capacity of the floodplain north of St. Louis, and the resulting increased risk of downstream flooding is a serious concern to the majority of residents in the city and surrounding communities.

Leading the fight to save the Confluence Floodplain is a grassroots organization called the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance (GRHA). Founded and currently chaired by Adolphus Busch IV of the Anheuser-Busch brewing family, the GRHA is actively working with a host of state and federal agencies and nonprofit conservation organizations—including Ducks Unlimited—to find ways to protect vital waterfowl habitat and the floodplain as a whole in St. Charles and Lincoln counties. Far from a radical environmental organization, the GRHA draws its support from a broad coalition of waterfowl hunters, farmers, local businesses, and other floodplain residents. One of the GHRA’s principal aims is to change Missouri’s current floodplain development laws to better protect these important natural areas from exploitation. Another focus is to eliminate tax incentives that unintentionally support floodplain development, incentives that were originally intended to foster urban renewal in inner cities.

Recognizing the region’s importance to continental waterfowl populations, Ducks Unlimited has designated the Confluence Floodplain as a priority conservation area. In June 2006, DU signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the GRHA to join the Confluence Floodplain Conservation Partnership, a cooperative effort involving several state and federal agencies and private conservation organizations to conserve wetlands and waterfowl habitat in the region. In recent years, biologists in this partnership have testified at numerous public hearings and submitted written opposition to planned developments, zoning changes, and annexation proposals in the Confluence Floodplain. In addition, the confluence partnership has helped raise public awareness about floodplain conservation issues by sponsoring a leadership summit and by contacting Missouri DU members about upcoming legislation and public hearings.

With the majority of the Confluence Floodplain in private ownership, cooperation with farmers, duck clubs, and other private landowners is essential to meeting DU’s conservation objectives in the region. Long-term easements secured through the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) and Farm and Ranchland Protection Program and perpetual conservation easements donated by private landowners are currently the best tools for preserving the region’s waterfowl habitats. In 2003, DU received its first donated conservation easement in the region from the Wilke Land Company. This 635-acre easement completed efforts by conservationists to protect Marias Temps Clair, a historic Missouri River oxbow jointly owned by the Wilke Land Company and the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). More recently, DU has accepted two additional conservation easements: a 52-acre easement on the Thousand Oaks Club and 320-acre easement on the Mallard Point Duck Club. Several other duck clubs have expressed interest in donating conservation easements on their properties, and DU is optimistic that many key waterfowl habitats in the region can be protected in this highly cost effective manner forever.

As a partner in the Missouri Agricultural Wetlands Initiative, DU is also working with state and federal agencies and other conservation groups to deliver a variety of programs and practices that demonstrate the compatibility of wetlands and agriculture. For example, DU and the MDC recently joined the Farm Services Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to establish a new conservation practice especially designed to enhance waterfowl habitat on agricultural lands. Known as CP 23 Wetland Restoration “Enhancement,” this program provides private landowners with funding, materials, and technical assistance to seasonally flood cropland adjacent to other restored wetlands. In addition, DU partners with government agencies to deliver other agricultural conservation programs, including WRP and Partners for Fish and Wildlife.

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