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McCaskill seeks action on delayed St. John's Bayou project in Bootheel

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 26, 2012 - WASHINGTON – Calling years of delays “unacceptable,” U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is seeking federal action on the St. John’s Bayou-New Madrid Floodway project, which would plug a 1,500-foot-wide gap in the Mississippi River’s levee system.

Initial construction on the project – at the southern end, near New Madrid, of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway in Missouri’s Bootheel – was stopped in 2007 after environmental groups objected. A federal judge ruled that the Corps of Engineers’ environmental impact statement was flawed.

Since then, the Corps has been reviewing the $100 million project and developing a revised impact statement, but disputes involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency have delayed action.

“My constituents deserve to have a final answer regarding this project,” McCaskill wrote in a letter sent recently to the heads of the two agencies. “The ongoing uncertainty and delays in reaching a final resolution to improving flood control along the St. Johns Bayou and in the New Madrid Floodway are unacceptable.”

Local officials describe the flood-protection project as being vital to the region’s economy. But the National Wildlife Federation says it is a waste of money, a threat to the environment and is "at odds with modern science." Local farmers, meanwhile, contend that plugging the levee gap is essential to stopping the backwater that seeps into the area when the Mississippi is high.

At the moment, the Mississippi is nearing record lows in the area. But in May 2011, the river was so high that the Corps blasted the Birds Point levee to save nearby Cairo, Ill., from floodwaters. That Birds Point levee is now being rebuilt.

Congress had first authorized a plan to close the St. John’s Bayou gap — between the 56-mile long frontline levee that defines the eastern edge of the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway and the 36-mile setback levee that defines the western edge — back in 1954. But it took years to get funding, and then the project was expanded by a law passed in 1986 that called for improving channels in the St. John’s Bayou Basin.

It wasn’t until 2006 that the Army Corps finally started work on the project, but the lawsuit filed by the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund led to the federal court order to abandon the project until an acceptable environmental impact statement could be approved.

In September, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, had complained that President Barack Obama’s administration “inexplicably took action . . . to stall this important flood protection effort. This decision was made without explanation, leaving local residents and communities hanging in the balance.”

They sent a letter asking the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, why her office told the Corps' Mississippi Valley Division to “withhold submission and publication of the draft” environmental statement for the St. John’s project.

Now McCaskill is getting involved, writing that “residents of this area deserve the same level of flood control provided to all others along the Mississippi.” She said that high waters at times flood fertile farmland in the area, and “rainwater also regularly floods the towns of Charleston, East Prairie and parts of Sikeston . . . due to inadequate drainage.”

In her letter, McCaskill calls for the federal agencies to reach a resolution in 30 days and present a new environmental impact statement in 60 days. If the new report is acceptable, the project could move forward if funding is available.

Emerson, who is leaving Congress in February, says the seemingly endless debate over the St. John’s project, combined with the breach of the Birds Point levee, had frustrated floodway residents and fueled distrust of the Corps, the federal government and environmentalists.

Environmental groups oppose project

McCaskill’s position on the project appeared likely to please area farmers and businesses but upset environmental groups that have been arguing that it is ill-conceived and would be damaging to wildlife.

"The St. Johns/New Madrid project will promote intensified use of the floodway and make it even harder to operate the floodway to save towns in the area during the next big flood,” argued Brad Walker, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment's wetlands and floodplains director, in a statement to the Beacon in September.

“The fact that planning for this project continues blatantly disregards the danger this project poses to communities that rely on the floodway’s use to protect them from big floods.”

George Sorvalis, coordinator of the National Wildlife Federation’s Water Protection Network, called the St. John’s plan “an ill-conceived project that already has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.”

In an interview this fall, he said environmentalists would continue to fight the St. John's project because "it would have huge environmental consequences" to fish and wildlife habitat, not only in the Bootheel but also in a large segment of the Mississippi River.

“It is the last remaining area in Missouri where the Mississippi can reach its floodplain,” Sorvalis said. “And it would have the largest impact on wetlands of any project in the EPA’s Region 7,” which includes Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.

He quoted a 2011 Department of the Interior letter saying that “altering the hydrologic regime of the floodway produces a suite of complex and unsolvable challenges in providing adequate mitigation for the wetland, fishery and floodplain impacts.”

Calling the St. John’s plan a “special interest project,” Walker of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment has called on the government to discard it.

“There are so many valid projects that we need to pursue and that have inadequate or no funding,” he said. “This one needs to be formally de-authorized.”