Sponsors of St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project frustrated by work reversal

Monday, April 6, 2009

CARUTHERSVILLE, Mo. -- Reversing work on the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project is "a shame -- a waste of taxpayer dollars," according to the project's sponsors.

Furg Hunter, a supervisor for the St. Johns Levee and Drainage District, the local sponsors for the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project, spoke about efforts to see the project through and expressed frustrations at the waste of reversing work during a public meeting March 30 in Caruthersville.

The meeting was one of four held by the Mississippi River Commission during its annual high-water inspection trip aboard the Motor Vessel Mississippi.

Hunter recalled the ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in September 2007 ordering the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt work on the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project and restore the area to how it was before they started.

Hunter said the St. Johns Levee and Drainage District's board first decided that the project, which would close the gap between the setback and frontline levees in the New Madrid floodway and install a pumping station there, is still viable.

The project was designed by the corps to protect the St. John's Bayou and New Madrid floodway areas from backwater flooding from the Mississippi River and to reduce headwater flooding around East Prairie, Mo.

While elected officials have already "expended a lot of political capital over the many years in helping us move this project forward," he said, both Sen. "Kit" Bond and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson "have agreed to work with us and to help us."

Hunter added they have also invited Sen. Claire McCaskill to come view the project and speak with leaders from communities it would have an impact on.

"Secondly we realize that the Corps of Engineers has a serious credibility problem at this point. The court not only criticized the lack of study of certain environmental elements but seriously questioned the Corps of Engineers' integrity in arriving at certain conclusions," Hunter said.

Hunter said that while the St. Johns District officials don't agree with the court, they felt that to overcome that attitude "a new approach will be necessary."

"We have asked the court to add a new layer of independent review for existing documentation as well as any additional studies that will be done," he said. "At the outset we realized this might have its risk: it's possible that the outcome may not be favorable or may require more studies that we would not like to see. However, we felt that such an independent review was the only way to satisfy this judge that there is no predetermined outcome."

Hunter said this review is in addition to independent review of the Corps' water projects required by Congress.

The St. Johns District has learned that various study models used by the Corps in project analysis must be certified and may be certified by a Corps district other than the Memphis District, Hunter said. As they have concerns that the certification process may not be a priority among other districts, Hunter said the board is requesting the Mississippi River Commission "inquire as to the timeline and deadlines by the Corps for this model certification."

Hunter said while they are pursuing new studies, the Corps' Memphis District is preparing to comply with the court's order and deconstruct $10 million worth of work that was already done on the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project.

"This is not site restoration, it is moving the dirt back where it was before the project started," Hunter said. "If we prevail, this will cost the taxpayers not only the $10 million already spent, but an additional $7 million to get it back to where it was. And if we are successful in our effort, we will have to spend another $10 million to get back to where we are today at this point. We think this is a big waste of taxpayer dollars."

Attempts to solve this problem, however, "have met with road blocks that defy common sense," he added. "The next time someone accuses those of us who support improvements to our water resources as 'pork barrel spending' you might point out what the federal judicial system and Congress have done with taxpayer dollars."

Hunter said they realize that the "Corps of Engineers' hands are tied." He said Col. Thomas Smith, commander of the Corps' Memphis District, and his staff have worked with the St. Johns board on finding ways to move forward and have maintained an unprecedented level of communication and participation in decision making process.

"We look forward to the next step that we hope will get this project under construction," Hunter said.

Mississippi River Commission members and Corps officials then discussed particulars related to the court's order to cease and reverse the project and the study model certification process.

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