Levee project moves closer to reality

Saturday, June 28, 2003

It shocked and disappointed many flood-ravaged residents of the Missouri Bootheel when a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to protect them got waylaid last year.

For the previous 15 years, the corps had moved ahead to close a 1,500-foot gap in the levee that protects New Madrid. While the city itself was saved during flooding, the muddy Mississippi River waters rushed into low-lying farmland, affecting 49,000 acres of crops last year alone.

In addition, spring flooding routinely turns the Mississippi County town of Pinhook into an island. Schoolchildren actually had to be transported out of the city on a flatbed trailer pulled by a large tractor, because the school bus couldn't get to them. Residents of East Prairie couldn't get to jobs in other towns because of water over the roads.

No one is arguing there's a problem. At issue are environmental concerns. The St. Louis-based Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the National Wildlife Federation have both strongly opposed the levee project. Environmentalists fear it will wipe out a species of white bass and continue to endanger terns.

So when the corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service couldn't come to an agreement on mitigation efforts, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources refused to grant a permit for the project to continue.

Finally, months after the project was halted, there is a little progress.

The DNR is going to approve the project now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the corps have come to an agreement on wetland mitigation. The corps will be required to monitor the effect of closing the gap for five years and then add more mitigation projects if necessary. The corps also will have to reforest thousands of acres of farmland and allow controlled flooding in the hopes that fish will continue to use some of the bayou to spawn.

Almost immediately after the decision was reached, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment charged that the agreement would do very little to protect the wetlands. And the national conservation group Environmental Defense has vowed to appeal the decision with the state's Water Quality Board.

Maybe, while the project is being delayed further, the floodwaters won't rob Pinhook's children of more education time. Maybe flooding won't rob East Prairie residents of jobs because they can't get to work.

The people most affected by a project are OK with it. There hasn't been a peep of protest out of Mississippi County. Perhaps the people who live comfortably safely behind protective levees in St. Louis ought to butt out.

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