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Corps stimulus money re-opens Mississippi River debate

By Rachel Lippmann


KWMU's Rachel Lippmann reports on how stimulus money is restarting the debate over changing the Mississippi River

St. Louis – It frustrates Bob Criss to look at the map posted in a first-floor hallway of the Washington University Earth and Planetary Sciences building.

"The Mississippi River at St. Louis used to be nearly a mile wide," he said. "Now, the Eads Bridge goes across the Mississippi River in three big 500-foot jumps," or just half of the original width.

The map is a replica of one drawn in 1837 by Robert E. Lee when he was a young lieutenant with the U-S Army Corps of Engineers, which the agency used to modify the river channel to help the steamboat industry. That started 170 years of river engineering, mostly through the use of hundreds of piles of rocks called wing dikes. The walls force rushing water into the center of the river to help keep the navigation channel clear for barges. The Corps will continue the tradition with the help of $10.4 million in stimulus money.

"This is using stimulus money to buy bigger floods," said Nicholas Pinter, a professor at Southern Illinois University who has studied river levels for 10 years. Plans to put more wing dikes in the river south of St. Louis baffle him, because they're solely planned to reduce the need for dredging.

"So on the one hand, a few dollars less spent on digging the bottom of the river," he said. "On the other hand, increased flooding, increased property damage, potentially loss of life from the next flood. This should be a no-brainer."

JB Marine owner George Foster agreed, but has the opposite opinion.

Foster has worked on the Mississippi River for 45 years, and the company he now owns, JB Marine, cleans and repairs barges. Its survival depends on a steady flow of river traffic, Foster said, and the more time the Corps spending cleaning the river bottom, the more business he loses. Wing dikes, therefore, are essential.

Foster admitted to not being an engineer, but said the arguments from Criss and Pinter make no sense.

"When you contain water with levees and put you bring them close to the river, that doesn't give the water area to spread out in, that might raise the water level, but a dike or an underwater weir, it would be like dropping a pebble in a bath tub," he said.

Engineering studies by the US Army Corps of Engineers show the same thing, said David Busse, the chief of the construction division, which designs and builds the dikes. Wing dikes are too short to impact a river that's already flooded, he said. But other man-made structures, like levees and flood walls, sometimes worsen flooding downriver.

"They want to protect Granite City, they want to protect the city of St. Louis. So they've built these levees that are holding the river inside, and does that cause the river to go up? Yes," he said.

The Corps is cherry picking the data, said Corps critics Nicholas Pinter and Bob Criss. They are continuing to demand an independent scientific review of the Corps's conclusion, but that's unlikely to happen before construction on the new dikes begins - the Corps wants to finish them by the end of the year.