Corps to blame for halt to floodway project

Friday, October 12, 2007

By Rob Henderson

This is in response to the op-ed column "Lack of flood control is unacceptable" by U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson regarding a federal judge's decision to halt work on the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project.

Ms. Emerson,

Did you (or your staff) read the 37-page ruling by U.S. District Judge James Robertson? If you had, you should have come to the conclusion that the onus is on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for violating several federal laws, the Water Resources Act of 1986, the Water Resources Act of 1974, the Federal Clean Water Act, the Federal Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899, and the Administrative Procedures Act.

You place the blame solely on the "environmental extremists" and not on the Corps of Engineers. It is the corps that has failed the people of the New Madrid Floodway and St. John's Bayou. The corps' claim of 100 percent mitigation for critical fish habitat was unobtainable with the proposed structures. If the corps had done its job professionally, the gap in the levee would have been closed by now. It has had the authority to do so since 1954.

It's not that the corps doesn't want to close the gap. It just didn't take into account that someone might be concerned about oversight. Additionally, it didn't take into account that the public is becoming more educated on the loss of wildlife habitat that has been endangered, threatened or driven to extinction species that can never be replaced.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called the project unworkable, saying it was "absolutely ridiculous."

Some restoration efforts have not been fulfilled as the system has been so mucked with that historical conditions can never be restored, let alone returned to their original state. The corps was the entity that, against the judge's recommendations, chose to move ahead with $7 million in construction, knowing full well in advance that these structures would have to be dismantled should the corps lose the case.

One of the main concerns with this case was the fact that the corps reverse-engineered the mitigation required to match the budget available for the project. Judge Robertson called it "result-oriented decision making," changing the fundamental mitigation models several times to achieve the desired expenditure.

The affected areas are some of the best farmland in the world. The sole reason for this is that they do get periodic flooding, which enriches the soil better than any petroleum-based fertilizer can. These areas are prone to flooding. They flooded long before anyone tried to live there. Wouldn't you assume that these areas will flood again?

On another note, this single project would drain more acres of wetlands than all the wetlands drained by the country's developers in a single year, yet it would not reduce the frequency of flooding in the towns it was intended to benefit.

In the early 1900s, someone came up with the great idea to drain that swamp in Southeast Missouri. This was the largest project of its kind, before or since that time. The diversity of wildlife found here was greater than anywhere in the state.

Imagine if you were to say you wanted to drain that swamp today. You would be laughed out of the room for destroying critical wetlands. Rich floodplain soils have been drained and exploited since the arrival of the first European settler. Slowly, scientists have seen the exploitation of a once-rich river system that was dynamic and restorative. Do we have to completely kill a system before we realize its value?

Rob Henderson resides in Scott City.

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