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Bi-state battle brewing over Bootheel floodway levee plan

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2013 - WASHINGTON – Critics call it a “dinosaur project,” a threat to the environment and a waste of money. Proponents describe it as a key flood-control plan “vital to the economic survival” of the region, its farmers and agribusinesses.

That renewed controversy over the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway project could end up reviving the dispute between Missouri and Illinois -- which broke into the open during the Great Flood of 2011 -- over flood protection around the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Unless he sees progress on the project, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he may try to hold hostage the White House nominee for its top environmental post. But if there is progress, Illinois lawmakers – sensitive to complaints by Cairo, Ill., about the levee's impact – might block the $165 million needed to complete it.

After a half century of battles, the on again/off again Bootheel project is showing zombie-like staying power as it re-emerges from legal limbo into the harsh battles now being waged by environmental and taxpayer groups that are trying to quash it, once and for all.

“It’s an idiotic project,” contends Josh Sewell, senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “It’s being sold as a flood protection project, but the biggest beneficiaries are going to be large agribusinesses.”

This month, the taxpayers group listed the St. John’s/New Madrid project as one of the top “engineering boondoogles” featured in its wasteful projects list. In an interview, Sewell said there are “much cheaper alternatives” for protecting East Prairie and other communities from backwater flows.

The project – first proposed in the 1950s, authorized by Congress but struck down by a federal judge in 2007 because of its flawed environmental impact statement (EIS) – would close a 1,500-foot-wide gap in the Mississippi River’s levee system at the Bird Point-New Madrid floodway’s southern end. Local officials say it is needed to stop the backwater that seeps into the area.

That’s the same Bootheel floodway that the Corps of Engineers “activated” at the height of the 2011 flood, blasting the Birds Point levee and sending a torrent of floodwater through the floodway’s farms. In doing so, the Corps diverted enough floodwater from the river to “save” Cairo and some other river towns from catastrophic flooding.

Last week, Blunt signaled that he wants to end the delay in approving a new EIS that – in theory – would put the project back on track. “The EPA has been outrageous in they way they have dealt with this floodway,” he said. “They’ve been holding the environmental impact study so that nobody gets to see it.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., also says she wants to see a resolution, although she has not explicitly backed the project. She and Blunt plan to meet soon with officials from the EPA and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – who have been holding up the Corp’s revised EIS for the project – to air out the barriers to proceeding.

“What we’ve got to do is get Fish & Wildlife and EPA and the Corps in a room and say: ‘Can you guys get an agreement? If not, why not?’” said McCaskill. “Let’s figure out where the disagreement lies, whether or not we can get it worked out.”

Illinois officials could block funding

At the same time Missouri lawmakers are pushing for action, regional officials in Cairo and other communities near the southern tip of Illinois – where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi – are pressuring the White House and Congress to put a stop to the Missouri project.

Warning that the project “jeopardizes the safety of out community by increasing the risk of catastrophic flooding,” Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman asked the White House and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to help “put an end to the St. John’s Bayou-New Madrid Floodway project.”

Letters using similar language have been sent to the White House, Durbin and other Illinois lawmakers by the Alexander County Board of Commissioners and by state legislators representing the region. And Coleman sent a letter, published this week in the Washington Post, to oppose the project.

In turn, Durbin and former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello – who represented Cairo until his retirement earlier this year – sent a letter to the Army official who oversees the Corps, Jo-Ellen Darcy, expressing concerns about the project.

The lawmakers asked for Darcy’s response to Cairo’s “concerns that the project would increase the risk of major flooding in that area by encouraging agricultural use and development behind the new levee, which could make it difficult for the Corps to operate the New Madrid Floodway.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, who took over Costello’s district, told the Beacon in an interview that he was skeptical about the Bootheel project, especially if closing off that part of the floodway would affect the Illinois side during major floods.

“We’ll be looking at that” project, said Enyart, who has met with Corps and FEMA representatives. “As one of the hydrologic engineers told me: ‘Anytime you change the river, it has unintended consequences.’ Even with the great computer modeling they have today, they can’t fully predict because it’s just such a dynamic system.

“Any time you build a levee, or build a higher levee, you are displacing that water to somewhere else. So you have to look and see where that displacement is going to happen.”

Corps official seeks to reassure Illinois lawmakers

Officials on the Missouri side of the river insist that building the levee and the pumping stations that would keep backwater out of East Prairie and rich farmland would not compromise the potential for activating the floodway if another major flood threatens.

They point out that the May 2011 activation of the floodway was the first time it had been used since 1937. “You’ve got two different issues there,” Blunt told reporters. “One is filling the gap in the levee and the other is the pumping part of that project.”

In her response on Aug. 24, Darcy told the Illinois lawmakers that the project “would not impede operation of the Birds Point to New Madrid Floodway during flood events and the floodway would continue to be operated as presently authorized during flood events."

Darcy added that the goal of the St. John’s Bayou project “is to manage risks from backwater flooding from the Mississippi River that are of a lesser magnitude than those that require operation of the” floodway.

But Nicholas Pinter, a geology professor at the Southern Illinois University- Carbondale who has studied flooding in the confluence region, says the problem with that analysis is that closing the levee gap would make it less likely that the Corps would opt to activate the floodway in a future flood.

“This is part of a long-standing effort to slowly trying to turn the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway into an area that will no longer function as a floodway during the next big flood,” Pinter said Thursday in an interview.

“It is a formula to increase land values, to promote high-value agriculture development, infrastructure and population within the floodway. This will all be used as arguments to prevent its operation during future floods.”

George Sorvalis, who coordinates the National Wildlife Federation’s Water Protection Network, has analyzed the landownership in the southern part of the floodway – in New Madrid County – where there are backwater problems. He said only 53 or so landowners or firms would likely benefit, and the floodway village of Pinhook -- cited in the past as a potential beneficiary -- was so badly damaged in 2011 that it has been vacated.

Sorvalis said his analysis of the plat maps indicates that about “20 percent of that acreage is owned in trusts by and relatives of R. D. James, who has been on the Mississippi River Commission for three decades, since 1981.”

James, who manages the A.D. Riley Cotton Co. in New Madrid, did not respond to an email asking for comment about the project. The James landownership issue has been previously discussed, including in a 2003 publication. And James, as a commissioner, was involved in the Mississippi River Commission's decision to activate the floodway in 2011, flooding all the farmland in it.

While it is always led by a high-ranking Corps officer, the Mississippi River Commission also includes three civilian members, including James. Its mission, according to its website, is “to develop plans to improve the condition of the Mississippi River, foster navigation, promote commerce, and prevent destructive floods.”

Support for the St. John’s Bayou-New Madrid project is strong on the Missouri side of the region, especially among floodway farmers and East Prairie businesses and residents who are affected by backwater flooding. The town’s mayor, Kevin Mainord, farms in the floodplain, and told the Washington Post this month that he is frustrated that “we’re no better than we were in 1954” in building the levee and pump-station project.

1954 was the year that Congress first authorized a plan to close the 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. But funding was delayed for years and then the project was expanded by a law passed in 1986 that called for improving channels in the St. John’s Bayou Basin and updating pump stations.

The Corps finally started work late in 2006, but the levee construction was halted after the NWF and the Environmental Defense Fund filed suit, alleging series flaws in the Corps’ analysis of the project's environmental impact.

In 2007, U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled that the Corps had acted “arbitrarily and capriciously" by claiming falsely that its plan “would fully mitigate impacts” to the fisheries habitat. He blocked the Corps from proceeding with the project and ordered it to “deconstruct that portion of the project which is has already built.”

For many years, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau – who left the House earlier this month – was the project’s biggest champion in Congress. Blunt now seems to be taking over that role, saying last week that environmental groups are exaggerating the project's impact on wetlands.

Blunt told reporters he supports building the levee and related pumping stations designed to keep river backwater out of the floodway. And he contended that the project would be cost effective.

“Every time you have that backup [through the levee gap], it creates a certain amount of expense,” Blunt said.

The St. John's Levee and Drainage District is also a key local player. Last year, two floodway farmers, David LaValle and Dean White – members of the levee district’s board of supervisors – wrote that environmental groups were trying to kill the project by “conducting a distortion campaign to confuse the public.”

Taking issue with critics’ assertion that closing the St. John’s levee gap would impede the floodway’s future operation and damage the environment, LaValle and White contended the project would “increase forested lands in the St. John's Bayou Basin by 35 percent, the New Madrid Floodway by 58 percent, and triple the size of Big Oak Tree State Park.”

Environmentalists seek to de-authorize project

But Sorvalis and other environmentalists say those numbers are misleading. The quarter-mile gap in the levee system “is the last remaining area in Missouri where the Mississippi can reach its floodplain,” Sorvalis argues. “It would have the largest impact on wetlands of any project in the EPA’s Region 7,” which includes Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.

Click for an NWF summary of the project's environmental impact.

A 2006 report of the Fish and Wildlife Service said the Mississippi River-New Madrid Floodway "connection is absolutely vital to maintaining a healthy, sustainable fishery in this section of the Mississippi."

And a letter from the Interior Department in 2011 warned 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.”

Brad Walker, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment's wetlands and floodplains director, has called for “formally de-authorizing” the project, one of hundreds of such projects authorized by Congress but never completed.

“We need to make it easier, not harder, to operate the floodway to protect our river towns along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers,” Walker said. “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.”

In an email, Walker suggested that the Corps “needs to focus upon the small portion of the project that would reduce East Prairie flooding, and that alone.”

SIU’s Pinter fears that political pressure might succeed in reviving the project, which he said goes against the grain of worldwide trends to create new floodways and expand floodplains as the best way of lessening major floods.

In the Netherlands, he said, the government is “successfully negotiating with farmers and landowners to provide flood storage. This Missouri project is on the opposite track.”