An earthquake in Haiti, a tsunami in Japan . . . . these natural disasters seemed far away from Kentucky. Then, in the spring of 2011, a portion of six states within the Mississippi River watershed experienced 600% to 1,000% above average rainfall in a two week period – just as melting snow gave way to spring. The resulting flooding led the President to declare some parts of Kentucky as national disaster areas. Thousands of citizens had to evacuate their homes.
Kentucky is the only U.S. state to be bordered on three sides by rivers – the Mississippi River to the west, the Ohio River to the north, and the Big Sandy River and Tug Fork to the east. Its major internal rivers include the Kentucky River, Tennessee River, Cumberland River, Green River and Licking River. Kentucky also boasts 90,000 miles of streams – one of the most expansive and complex stream systems in the nation.
Before levees, walls, channels and other flood-control structures, these waterways were buffered by bottomland hardwood forest, cypress and tupelo swamps, and moist-soil wetlands. These natural habitats absorbed rainfall and snowmelt before gradually releasing it to streams or groundwater. Today, eight states of the upper Mississippi basin have lost 35 million acres of forested wetlands – an area the size of Illinois. Kentucky has lost approximately 81 percent of the 1.5 million acres existing in the 1780’s, putting it in the top 10 states with most wetland acreage by percent lost. Without natural buffers, floodwaters meet up with concrete and sediment, causing them to rise higher and flow faster across the basin to the Gulf of Mexico.
The drastic loss of wetlands in the Mississippi River Basin has never been more evident than during Spring 2011 when the river reached historic levels. The flooding quickly took on national significance since the watershed drains all or part of 31 states and two Canadian provinces, lies at the heart of the nation’s most productive agricultural lands and serves as a hub for commerce.
The events were reminiscent of the flood of 1927, when the Mississippi River reclaimed most of its original floodplain, putting 27,000 square miles under water and reaching more than 100 miles across at its widest point. With more extreme weather likely in the wake of climate change, engineers, government officials, conservationists and others are considering strategies for returning the Mississippi to its natural floodplain where possible to prevent future environmental and economic losses for the nation.
In Kentucky, the Conservancy has a head start in helping river floodplains mimic nature. This includes restoring wetlands, finding incentives for farmers to remove land from uses that cause flooding and pollute water, and acquiring lands that might otherwise fall prey to development.
Obion Creek/Bayou du Chien Working in a part of western Kentucky free of levees and other flood control structures offers the opportunity to expand existing bottomland hardwood forests and wetlands that will allow the Mississippi River to flood naturally, preventing additional devastation. Since the watershed drains more than 350,000 acres of predominantly agricultural land, local farmers are buffering streams to control flooding and erosion. Ingram Barge Company is providing additional support to restore and reconnect more than 5,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forests and wetlands through conservation easements or land protection activities.
Big Rivers Corridor Acquiring the 2,571-acre Sturgis Tract, a former Forest Stewardship Council-certified sustainable working forest, advances efforts in the Big Rivers Corridor where the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Green, Tradewater and Cumberland rivers converge. Purchasing the tract offers the opportunity to restore and protect riparian areas along several miles of the Ohio and Tradewater rivers. Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and Division of Forestry will then manage the property for public use, sustainable timber, and the recovery and protection of endangered, threatened and rare species.
Green River Protecting a 28-miles of river stretching between the Green River Lake Dam and Mammoth Cave builds on a partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers to help Dam releases mimic natural flows, temperatures and water levels as much as possible. The Conservancy is also working to ensure that the Green River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is permanently extended. The program, which helped farmers enter into time limited agreements to remove land from agricultural production in return for financial compensation, led to the restoration of natural buffers along the tributaries and main stem of the river that reduced sediment, pesticides and nutrients entering the watershed from agricultural sources.