Judge halts construction on New Madrid Floodway Project

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt construction on the New Madrid Floodway Project, a major flood control project in Missouri's Bootheel.

Leaders of small communities prone to flooding there responded with dismay Tuesday.

U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson ruled Friday in Washington in favor of two environmental groups, Environmental Defense and the National Wildlife Federation, which brought a case in 2004 opposing the long-controversial project.

He said the corps also must dismantle work already completed on the project. About $7 million has been spent on the roughly $107 million project, the corps said.

The St. John's Bayou/New Madrid Floodway Project has been proposed for along the Mississippi River in the Bootheel region. It was intended to transform two drainage basins in a 400,000-acre project area -- the New Madrid Floodway and the St. John's Bayou Basin to its west.

The earliest part of the project was proposed in 1954.

Project goals

The floodway project would close a 1,500-foot gap in the Mississippi River Levee. It would include construction of a system with gates to control water flow between the river and the floodplain and include a large pump to remove water from behind the gates when necessary.

The St. John's Basin piece involves constructing a second pump to remove water that collects in the lower part of the St. John's Basin, and widening and straightening three channels to speed water removal from the area.

Lawyer Tim Searchinger, who represented the environmental groups, said if the project moved forward it would cut off the last major piece of connected floodplain habitat in Missouri on the lower Mississippi River from the river. It provides critical habitat for fish reproduction and migrating birds.

He said communities in the region, like East Prairie and Pinhook, need flood protection, but that the corps' proposals contained faulty information and would not actually have provided adequate flood protections for area residents.

However, supporters of the project have long argued it would benefit rural communities in the Bootheel, hit hard by seasonal flooding. The corps said the project would reduce flooding in Scott, Mississippi and New Madrid counties.

It said flooding can kill people, destroy crops and isolate residents and children from school. "Simply put, the economic and human hardships of the region will continue without the implementation of some alternative of this project," according to corps information on the project.

Judge's ruling

"It is not for this court to determine whether the project is a good idea or a bad one, or to pass judgment on the policy implications of public works. On their last point, however, the plaintiffs are correct," the judge wrote.

He ruled that the corps violated the Administrative Procedure Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it found that its plan would fully mitigate harm to fisheries' habitats.

The corps has not yet decided whether to appeal, said Larry Sharpe, the project manager with the corps.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., who represents the region, called the judge's ruling a temporary setback, but hoped it was "a pause before we move forward" to protect parts of Southeast Missouri.

"They deserve flood protection just as much as folks in urban areas like St. Louis and Louisville. The project is as necessary today as it was a year ago and 20 years ago -- people are still living in harm's way and they need relief," she said in a statement.

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