A number of factors have stymied the plan in the past, including the local community’s inability to put up matching funds and a 2007 court ruling that found that the Army Corps of Engineers “acted arbitrarily and capriciously” in its plan to offset the project’s environmental impact.
But the Corps is about to release its seventh analysis of the $165 million project saying the benefits outweigh the loss of the wetlands, according to a copy of the assessment obtained by The Washington Post.
Missouri Sens. Roy Blunt (R) and Claire McCaskill (D) will meet with key federal officials Wednesday to press for the analysis’s release and a final decision.
One hundred and fifty landowners and tenants raise mostly corn and soybeans on 100,000 acres in the New Madrid Floodway. About every three to five years, floods harm some of their crops or force farmers to delay planting. The Corps estimates that eliminating flooding there will produce $15.5 million in annual benefits by preventing damage and enabling the planting of a more diverse set of crops.
Lynn Bock, the attorney for the St. John Levee and Drainage District, said the area’s economic fortunes are tied to the productivity of its farmland. “That land out there is essentially our Ford factory,” said Bock, whose family owns land in the flood plain. “Anything we can do to improve how the farms are doing improves our lives.”
Bock added that he and others believe some Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department officials have overestimated the extent of wetlands in the region, especially on agricultural land. “It’s a perspective that doesn’t take into account what we see locally,” he said. “That’s why some of us locally have become so frustrated.”
But a coalition of opponents — including scientists, taxpayer advocates and environmentalists — warns that the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway project will sever one of the river’s remaining natural flows. They argue that it will destroy critical fish-spawning and birding habitat and intensify farming in an area the Corps is obligated to flood under certain conditions — for example, as it did in 2011 — to divert water threatening upstream communities such as Cairo, Ill.
“It’s completely idiotic,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “We’re going to increase development in an area we’ve designed to flood if we need to protect Cairo.”
James L. Connaughton, who reviewed the project when he headed the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President George W. Bush, said the battle over the project shows how “the decision nearly a century ago to turn the Mississippi River from a wild river to a managed river” has forced competing groups to face off over the tiny stretch.