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Environmental groups bash new impact statement on St. John's Bayou project

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 19, 2013: WASHINGTON – After months of delay, the Army Corps of Engineers has posted its latest draft environmental impact statement on the controversial plan to close a floodway gap in the Mississippi River’s levee system in the Missouri Bootheel.

The draft EIS for the long-delayed St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway project was criticized Friday by environmental groups that called on the administration of President Barack Obama to block the $165 million project.

The impact statement was posted on the website of the Corps’ Memphis District after the Senate bypassed a Senate “hold” by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – who wanted inter-agency agreement on the EIS -- on the nomination of Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Senate confirmed McCarthy in a 59-40 vote on Thursday, with Blunt voting no and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., voting for her confirmation.

In its summary of the draft EIS, the Corps says the project is “designed to manage flood risks to the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway area."

The draft EIS summary noted objections of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service but said that "alternatives were formulated that meet the federal objective for water resource development projects and the project specific objectives.”

The plan has been revised from a previous proposal that had been rejected by a federal court. It consists of closing the levee at the southern end of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, building a 1,500 cubic foot per second (cfs) pumping station in the floodway and a 1,000 cfs pumping station in the St. Johns Bayou Basin and modifying 23 miles of ditches in the St. Johns Bayou Basin.

The draft summary says the revised plan calls for “waterfowl management during waterfowl season in both basins, and manages flood risks in a manner that recognizes the benefit of the flood pulse to the remaining natural environment.”

The cost of the project is estimated at $164.78 million, with the Corps claiming a combined cost/benefit ratio of 2:1. Spending watchdog groups question that analysis.

Local officials say the project – first proposed in the 1950s, authorized by Congress but struck down by a federal judge in 2007 because of its earlier, flawed EIS – is needed to stop the backwater that seeps into the area.

But environmental and conservation groups reiterated their previous criticisms in statements issued late Friday. “There is no reason to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to prevent a floodway from flooding,” said George Sorvalis, water campaign manager for the National Wildlife Federation.

“This project would sever the last remaining connection the Mississippi River has to its floodplain in Missouri, devastating fish and wildlife populations. The Obama administration needs to put this boondoggle to rest once and for all.”

The Birds Point-New Madrid floodway was “activated” by the Corps 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.

Brad Walker, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment’s wetlands and floodplains director, has called for de-authorizing the proposed project. “This folly of a project has never been built for one simple reason: It is a subsidy for a handful of wealthy farmers that is not in the best interest of the American people,” he said in a statement Friday.

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.”

In its draft “Coordination Act Report” included in the Corps proposal, the FWS’s ecological field service in Columbia. Mo., said, “The Service opposes the New Madrid Floodway component of the preferred alternative” because it would “cause substantial, irretrievable losses of nationally significant fish and wildlife resources, and greatly diminish rare and unique habitats found in southeast Missouri.”

In a Senate speech this week explaining his four-month “hold” – from March 18 until this week – on the EPA nominee over the Bootheel project, Blunt said his main goal was to get the EPA, the Corps and the FWS to agree on “the facts” about wetlands and mitigation issues related to the proposal.

“I’m not asking the federal government to spend a dime or to approve construction” of the project, Blunt said in his 11-minute speech. “I’m just asking them to agree to the facts.”

Noting that Congress has authorized the project but not funded it, Blunt said he was tired of the government dragging its feet on revising the EIS and then getting public comment about the plan. “It’s not even a final statement. It’s a draft statement,” he said.

Now that the revised draft EIS has been published, the Corps is seeking public comments about it, with a deadline of September 9.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.