An engineering project introduced during the Eisenhower administration may be carried out during the Obama administration, but with no more consensus now than over the past 60 years.
The plan to plug a quarter-mile gap in an enormous levee along the Mississippi River and install two pumping stations would help control flooding in southeastern Missouri, but it requires draining as much as 55,000 acres of wetlands that provide backwater habitat for fish and waterfowl.
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.
“When you think about it, what farmers and landowners in St. John’s are asking for is no different from what many farmers and landowners up and down the Mississippi have received in terms of federal support for protection from flooding,” he said.
But many experts — including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the EPA — argue that employing the same engineering techniques that have already wiped out 93 percent of the lower Mississippi flood plain could have disastrous consequences.
Fish and Wildlife supervisor Amy Salveter at the Missouri Ecological Services office in Columbia warned Corps officials in a letter last month that the latest plan would “result in unacceptable losses of nationally significant fish, wildlife, and aquatic resources.”
Charles Scott, who worked on the project for 12 years as a supervisor at the same office, said the quarter-mile gap in the levee is the last connection of the Mississippi to its flood plain in Missouri. Since the gap allows the river’s flow into the flood plain to saturate the wetlands, “Once that connection’s gone, you can’t get it back,” he said.
Much of the dispute centers on how the Corps would replace the 14,000 acres of forested woodlands and 41,000 acres of agricultural wetlands it would eliminate. It has promised to plant roughly 10,000 acres of trees as part of its compensation. But many of the planting sites would not be easily accessed by fish because they would be cut off from the river by the new levee, and the agency is not creating a new area subject to routine flooding.
But restoration ecology professor Joy Zedler of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said this approach fails to take into account how wetlands — which provide spawning habitat for half the fish species in the Mississippi River ecosystem — work. She compared it to razing someone’s house and compensating by redecorating their garage.
“If I took away your house, you would experience a net loss of area and function,” said Zedler, who chaired a major 2001 review of wetlands policy for the National Academy of Sciences. “If I left your garage and redecorated it, you would have still lost a large area and most of the function.”
Opponents of the project thought they had killed it in September 2007, when U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled the Corps had erred in its earlier environmental analysis. The legal filings featured a memo from a Corps official calling it and one other agency plan “economic duds with huge environmental consequences.”
At that point the Corps had already started construction in southeastern Missouri; the process of digging, stabilizing and then restoring the site after the court decision cost more than
$12 million and took 41 / 2 years.
When asked why the Corps was pursuing the project again, spokesman Gene Pawlik wrote in an e-mail that it had received funding to produce an environmental impact statement.
Several Missouri politicians have campaigned for the project to go forward, arguing that construction will provide an immediate burst of economic activity and boost the region’s long-term prospects.
Residents of East Prairie, Mo., which is flooded every three or four years, say it will alleviate their flood problems, but the Corps has found that, after the project is completed, the town will be subject to the same rate of flooding because it stems mainly from poor drainage rather than flooding from the Mississippi River. The Corps has rejected a cheaper alternative project for East Prairie that would build a bypass channel along an adjacent stream.
East Prairie Mayor Kevin Mainord, who farms 2,900 acres in the flood plain, said he and his neighbors cannot understand why “we’re no further than we were in 1954” on the project.
Blunt — who told reporters on Feb. 4 that he and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) “spent all of last year trying to browbeat the EPA and the Corps of Engineers into doing this job” — tweeted Friday that he would rachet up the pressure.
“The New Madrid Floodway Project has been plagued by inexcusable delays for 30+ yrs,” he tweeted. “I plan to press the Obama Admin for answers next week.”
McCaskill spokesman Drew Pusateri said the senator will review the environmental impact statement before taking a position on whether the Corps plan should proceed. But he added that she and Blunt agree that officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps need to work out their differences.
“Senator McCaskill’s number one goal is ending the limbo that this project has created for Missourians for decades, and that can’t happen until all sides sit down and communicate,” Pusateri said.
George Sorvalis, a water resource specialist at the National Wildlife Federation, wrote in an e-mail that the Obama administration could end the long saga by instructing the Corps to abandon the plan.
“Fortunately, it is not too late for the Obama Administration to step up and scrap this latest study, for which 90 percent of the benefits accrue to agriculture, and instead put forth a real plan to protect and enhance public safety in East Prairie and the surrounding region,” he wrote.