America's Floodplain: DU's dedication to the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers

At the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers is North America's greatest floodplain. Carrying waters from over half of the United States landscape, this region serves vital ecological functions such as storage and purification of floodwaters, and provides critically important migration habitat to over 250 species of waterfowl, wading birds and neo-tropical migrant songbirds.

Today, however, the ability of "America's Floodplain" to serve these vital ecological functions is at great risk. Approximately 90% of the historic wetland habitat base has been altered by man's activities. Modern agriculture has utilized the naturally fertile flood plain to feed a growing world population while a locally sprawling urban population views the flood plain as expansion zones for factories, homes, airports and shopping malls.

Acknowledging the importance of this area to our mission, in 2003 Ducks Unlimited established the "Confluence Focus Area" (CFA) as one of DU's priority Conservation Regions. In an effort to protect, restore and enhance the remaining floodplain and its ecological values DU and conservation partners are working to combine resources with those of other private, government, and nongovernment conservation entities to find win-win strategies for floodplain conservation.

The Missouri portion of the CFA is generally described as the floodplain of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers located in Pike, Lincoln, St. Charles and St. Louis counties containing approximately 292,000 floodplain acres. Historically this floodplain contained numerous wetlands and associated backwater areas with marshes and wet prairies on the poorly drained soils and bottomland hardwood forest on the better-drained sites. Today, a series of locks and dams on the Mississippi and channelization of the Missouri River for barge navigation have drastically altered the hydrology in the region. The main bottoms have been converted to cropland and although many of the islands are still timbered, they are now covered with low-value trees, such as willow, cottonwood and hackberry. The remnant oak-dominated forests were killed by submergence in the flood of 1993. The CFA contains approximately 43,000 acres of state and federal public land in addition to over 31,000 acres of privately managed wetlands and duck clubs.

More than any other event, the great flood of 1993 has defined the realities and functional limits of the Missouri portion of the CFA. More than 1K 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.

Despite the flood of 1993, development of the Confluence floodplain remains the greatest threat to this important ecological resource. Since 1993 approximately 4,000 acres of floodplain have been converted to commercial buildings, factories, and shopping malls. The vast majority of these acres were under floodwaters just 20 years ago. Commercial and residential projects underway, or in planning stages, threaten to convert 14K additional acres in St. Louis, St. Charles, and Lincoln counties alone.

With the majority of land in the CFA privately owned, efforts to achieve focus area goals are dependent on the collective efforts and accomplishments of federal, state and local private land programs. While conservation partners are utilizing numerous programs, long-term conservation easements including the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP), and/or donated/purchased DU conservation easements are among the best tools for preserving long-term conservation values of the CFA. With more than 31,000 acres of privately managed duck clubs and hundreds of thousands of acres in agriculture production within the CFA, emphasis is needed on helping all willing landowners understand the importance of the Confluence and the variety of programs available to insure long-term floodplain protection.

From a MO DU specific accomplishment standpoint, to date DU holds 26 Conservation Easements in the Missouri Portion of the CFA for a total of 8,154 acres. These 26 Conservation Easements have generated nearly $38 million in Conservation Easement Value (CEV) which has been made available as match to secure additional grant dollars for delivering additional wetland habitat acres. For example, DU and conservation partners in Missouri have used a portion of this CEV as match to secure nine standard ($1M apiece) NAWCA grants which have enhanced/restored an additional 23,000 acres of wetland habitat, mostly on public lands in Missouri.