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Environmental groups battle farm, business interests over Bootheel levee project

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2012 - WASHINGTON – More than a year after the Army Corps of Engineers blasted the Birds Point levee to save nearby Cairo, Ill., from floodwaters, another levee project in Missouri’s fertile Bootheel is generating renewed controversy.

The planned levee at the center of the debate, the St. John’s Bayou-New Madrid Floodway project, would plug a 1,500-foot-wide gap in the levee system at the floodway’s southern end, near New Madrid.

Lawmakers call it a key flood-protection project that is vital to the region’s economy. 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 contend that plugging the gap is essential to stopping the backwater that seeps into the area when the Mississippi River is high.

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

Calling the delay "unacceptable," Blunt and Emerson sent a letter asking the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, why her office directed the Corps' Mississippi Valley Division commander to "withhold submission and publication of the draft Environmental Impact Statement" for the St. John’s project.

Demanding an explanation, Blunt and Emerson said that action by the administration "appear[s] to our constituents as an effort by [the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency] to undermine the project for the people of New Madrid and Mississippi counties in Missouri."

While those lawmakers describe the project as "vital to the economic survival of the region," experts at national environmental groups that oppose the project contend that it is a waste of money that would hurt the region’s wildlife and fish.

"It is an ill-conceived project that already has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars," said George Sorvalis, coordinator of the NWF’s Water Protection Network. In an interview, he made it clear that the NWF is not opposing the ongoing project to restore the blasted Birds Point levee to its former height of 61.5 feet on the Cairo river gauge.

But Sorvalis 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."

And 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."

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

Update: Brad Walker, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment's wetlands and floodplains director, also opposed the project in a statement on Friday: 

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

Walker continued: "Fortunately the latest project study was put on hold by the Obama Administration, but project proponents are still trying to push this special interest project on the taxpayers, adding to the millions in tax dollars and other lost resources the project has wasted.  There are so many valid projects that we need to pursue and that have inadequate or no funding; this one needs to be formally de-authorized."  End Update.

St. John’s project disputed for decades

The latest argument over the St. John’s project follows a long-running debate that goes back decades. Some local farmers have been fighting their cause that whole time.

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 — 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 and updating pump stations.

The Army Corps finally started work on the project late in 2006, but the work was halted after the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund filed suit, alleging that the Corps’ environmental impact statement for the $100 million project was flawed.

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

Since then, the Corps has been reviewing the project and developing a revised environmental impact statement, which was scheduled to be completed in December. Emerson told the Beacon last year that 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.

Ben White of Kirkwood, who owns his family's 135-acre farm near Dorena, told the Beacon’s Mary Leonard last year that some farmers in the area grew weary of fighting the St. John’s backwater and moved off the land.

Two floodway farmers, David LaValle and Dean White — who are members of the board of supervisors of the St. John's Levee and Drainage District — wrote in the Southeast Missourian that the NWF and other environment groups were trying to kill the project by “conducting a distortion campaign to confuse the public and try to align neighbor against neighbor."

Taking issue with the NWF’s contention that closing the St. John’s levee gap would impede the future operation of the entire floodway, LaValle and White contended that the project would "control the flooding of thousands of acres of farmland and help prevent flooding of rural communities."

Rather than damaging the environment, they argued, 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."