Day 4: Floods, Farms, Flyways and Forests

Helena, AR

When the Levee(s) Break: How the ’27 Flood Shaped a Nation

The rich land of the Delta has sustained humans for millennia but became especially important in the 1800s as cotton and sugarcane growers built an economy on the backs of slaves and sharecroppers. The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 obliterated 145 levees, inundated 27,000 square miles of this prime farming land and forced 600,000 people from their homes. The event profoundly changed the U.S. as, in the aftermath of the flood, hundreds of thousands of mostly black sharecroppers began a decades-long migration from the agricultural south to the industrial north. Fellows took a couple hours to check out the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Ark., for an overview of this seminal event.

Sumner, MS

The Farm Bill and the Flyway: How the Mississippi Connects Delta Farmers, National Non-Profits and Hunters Far and Wide

It’s not every day that you get hunters, farmers and environmentalists in the same room – much less on the same page. But that’s exactly what’s happening as multiple stakeholders work to manage the great Mississippi flyway. Each year, in addition to all of those sweet-singing Neotropical migrants, millions upon millions of ducks and geese use the Mississippi River and its surrounding floodplain as a migration corridor. In fact, nearly 40 percent of North American waterfowl and 60 percent of all U.S. bird species use the flyway for migration or to overwinter. It’s an impressive statistic, but the numbers it reflects used to be even more mind- boggling; Over the last 100 years, while much of the lower Mississippi floodplain was converted to other uses – primarily agricultural production for cotton and rice – the habitat and food sources waterfowl needed dried up. As their population numbers plummeted, conservationists, especially hunters, took action. We met up with some folks from Ducks Unlimited to hear about the nationwide efforts that helped reverse the trend and headed out into the field (literally) to see how farmers are playing a crucial role in conservation.

Bringing Back a Fragmented Flooded Forest

The historic floodplain of the lower Mississippi, called the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, stretches from the southern tip of Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. Once, it boasted 24.7 million acres of forested wetlands that had evolved within the unpredictable ebb and flow of the Mississippi. Levees cut these lands off from the Mississippi floods that sustained them and allowed farmers to clear the now-dry land for the plow. Today, only about 20 percent of this habitat remains, but it still provides crucial cover from predators and cold snaps for migratory ducks and it is also home to a host of threatened or endangered species – from songbirds to sturgeon to the Louisiana black bear.