Corps won't rule out gates for Birds Point levee fix

Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Water flows through an intentional breach in the Birds Point levee May 3 in Mississippi County, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Should the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ever opt to activate the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway to fight floodwaters again, it could be a decidedly less explosive event.

The order could come to simply raise the gates.

The corps on Tuesday would not rule on the possibility that earthen berms it blew to bits with 276 tons of explosives earlier this month could be replaced with mechanical gates, similar to two floodways downriver in Louisiana. Corps spokesman Jim Pogue said the corps will "look at all the alternatives" after it temporarily repairs the levee by March 1.

"All that we're authorized to do is to return the levee to the way we found it," Pogue said. "But if there's a better way, then that would require that the authorization be somehow changed."

Most likely that would take an act of Congress, which funds the corps, Pogue said. How to pay for any repairs to the levee is still a question, Pogue said.

"But the gates won't be the only alternative we look at," Pogue said. "But I think it's safe to say the gates will be one of them."

Pogue did not detail any other options but said definitively that gates would not be the only thing the corps would evaluate.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Cape Girardeau Republican, has said she staunchly opposes adding mechanical gates to the levee because it could make the corps trigger-happy and lead to more frequent activations, which inundate 130,000 acres of Southeast Missouri farmland.

Col. Vernie Reichling, the corps' Memphis District commander, has said that gates are less complicated and less dangerous. After the third levee breaching near New Madrid, Reichling made those comments after using explosives caused delays because of bad weather and miscalculations about how much to use.

When the news about the gates came Tuesday, area officials were still smarting from Monday's announcement that the corps had set its goal as March 1 to temporarily repair the levee. That means the levee may not be repaired until almost 10 months after the first detonation May 2.

"I want the levee put back like it was," Mississippi County Commissioner Robert Jackson said. "That levee proved itself worthy since they built it back in 1937. It was built out of good old dirt. If gates were put in, it would make it too easy to access that floodway again."

Jackson also farms 1,200 acres in the floodway, which is in both Mississippi and New Madrid counties. He believes that next spring is too long to take to get the levee repaired. Left as is, the waters could rise again and wipe out crops for a second or third time.

Out of the 130,000 acres in the floodway, Jackson was hoping that 100,000 could still be planted this summer.

"They need to be working on it right away," he said.

Mississippi County Presiding Commissioner Carlin Bennett said the commission would fight "tooth and nail" to make sure that the levee was returned to its original state -- and faster than the corps anticipates.

"This is unacceptable," Bennett said. "If they would get out of our way, we could erect a permanent levee faster than that. And there's certainly been some talk from some people down here who want to do just that."

Pogue said Monday that the corps would frown on that.

Also on Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was conducting limited floodwater sampling at the floodway. Surface water sampling was conducted at several locations in the floodway to determine if any threats to emergency response workers are present, said EPA spokesman David Bryan.

The surface water will be analyzed for pesticides, E. coli, herbicides, metals, fuel, bacteria and perchlorate. Perchlorate is an ingredient the corps used in the explosives. Bryan said the EPA established the sampling based on chemicals from explosives used to activate the floodway, the agricultural characteristics of the area and information that not all the petroleum products were removed from the floodway.

Results for E. coli should come back in a day or two, and other test results should be final in about a week.

The U.S. Geological Survey took samples from the floodway shortly after the breach at Birds Point on May 2. Calls to USGS personnel were not returned Tuesday.

The EPA's response has yet to be determined, Bryan said, but it could be to remove some hazardous material from the floodway.

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

Mississippi County, MO

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