Corps pauses Bootheel floodplain project

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Environmentalists are claiming victory in their fight against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' proposed flood control plans on the Mississippi River in Mississippi and New Madrid counties, but the corps says it is just a pause.

The plan in dispute, the $85 million St. John's/New Madrid Floodway project, would close the levee gap at New Madrid with flood gates and install two pumping stations to provide drainage to prevent backwater from the Mississippi River from coming up into the New Madrid Floodway.

Those pumps would also clear any local flash floods.

The corps approved the project in 2003 but last month withdrew its Environmental Impact Statement to make some changes. That move occurred just oral arguments were to begin in environmentalists' challenge of the proeject in federal court.

"There were some inconsistencies in our document and the way we addressed mitigation, and we felt we needed to clarify exactly how we intended to mitigate for the loss of the project," explained Larry Sharp of the corps' Memphis District office.

Ted Heisel of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment said the problems were with the corps' math.

"Basically the corps has committed a major math error," he said.

Sharp disagrees. He says the confusion was due not to the math but to the terms the corps used to describe the fish area to be lost. In some places in the plan the corps had referred to 8,375 acres and in other places to 8,375 average daily flooded acres."

"What it boils down to is clarifying those terms," he said. "We also did see it would be very difficult to mitigate for fishery losses with 8,375 acres of reforested cropland because of the timing that those lands need to be flooded."

He said the corps will find other mitigation measures. Conservationists say those measures won't account for the damage to habitat the project will do.

"If you're destroying a wetland you need to restore a wetland," said Ted Heisel of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. "Planting trees on otherwise dry farmland doesn't cut it."

Lynn Boch, attorney for the St. John's Levee and Drainage District, objects to that characterization of the floodplain. "It's not a wetland. Right now it's as dry as it's been in eons."

Back in the days when only the time of year dictated the river's levels, fish commonly followed the spring floods into the floodplains and spawned only to return to the riverbed when the waters receded in the fall.

"What makes this area so unique is that it is one of the few places where there is still a large portion of Mississippi River floodplain that is connected to the river," said Heisel, "so when the river comes up it floods that end of the area and the fish sort of follow the flood waters and spawn in the floodplain."

Boch said the project has almost universal approval in the Bootheel.

"I know of no local individual who is against this project or thinks it is a bad thing for the environment.

"... For the silk stocking penthouse lawyers in Washington D.C., New York or even St. Louis to try to paint this project as something else is really ridiculous," Boch said.

Lloyd Smith, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson's chief of staff, said the project is most important to the community of Pinhook, a predominantly African American community which lies within the floodway and is surrounded by water every time the river comes up.

An endangered bird, the least tern, fishes in the bayou but nests in the sandbars of the Mississippi. Sharp said the project should not affect the bird.

"We are not impacting their reproduction areas," he said. "We didn't feel that there would be any impact."

The revisions to the EIS should be completed by the end of the month. The proposal will then be submitted to the public for review during a 45-day comment period. Any public comments on the revised EIS will be added before the draft is sent to state and federal agencies for further review.

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