The endangered birds that were holding up repairs on a section of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway have vacated their nests, which will allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to continue working on providing area farmers some level of flood protection.
Least terns had been nesting in the vicinity of one of three holes the corps blew into the levee to activate the floodway in May to relieve flooding in several communities.
But corps spokesman Jim Pogue said the birds completed nesting and left about a week ago. Before the corps can continue rebuilding the center crevasse near Big Oak Tree State Park, it had to complete an environmental assessment, which it has done, Pogue said.
"We're required to do that before we start work on the center crevasse," Pogue said.
The 12-page report, released last week, invites public comment until Sept. 6, after which Memphis District commander Col. Vernie Reichling is expected to sign off on the document so work on the center breach can resume.
"Once he does that, the 'dozers should be rolling the next day," Pogue said.
But the corps report, which was a joint effort with the state's Department of Natural Resources, also lays out half-billion-dollar alternatives that the corps has thus far discarded, including installing gated structures and a floodway buyout. A third alternative looked at in the report discusses doing nothing and the results of that.
For example, the flood buyout option is estimated to cost $582 million and calls for purchasing all the land and structures within the 130,000-acre, or 200-square-mile, floodway. The report says this option would result in a net loss of agriculture and jobs but would provide an increase in forested lands and associated habitat for fish and wildlife.
Installing gated structures, the report says, would cost $449.4 million and would consist of a vertical lift gate near the location of the lower crevasse and an inflow gate near the northern part of the floodway near Birds Point, Mo.
Such reports require that the corps look at alternatives, said Edward Lambert, the corps' chief of environmental compliance. But all the corps is ultimately authorized to do is to restore the levee to preactivation conditions, which is about 62.5 feet.
Phase one is what the corps is doing right now, he said, spending about $15 million to temporarily set the levee to 51 feet. Phase two will be done, he said, when $21 million is authorized to restore the floodway to 62.5 feet, he said.
"All we can do right now is get them back to 51," Lambert said. "The 62.5 is completely about the funding. We're going to do that as funding is available. But of all those other options -- gates, buyouts, whatever -- rebuilding the levee to was considered the most cost-effective."
Topped with clay
But even when the corps does rebuild the levee to 62.5, it won't be exactly as it was before, Lambert said. The corps has opted to build what's known as a sand-core levee with a clay cap.
Before the blast, the floodway levees were build almost exclusively with clay. The corps is building the levees back to 51 feet using similar clay, Lambert said. But when they rebuild the levee to its original height, they will reconstruct the levees with sand above the 51-foot level and then cap the levees with a "clay top," he said.
"So if we were to have to operate the floodway again, it would take less explosives," he said. "We'd just have to crack that clay and it would be much more efficient for operation."
That the corps is trying to make the floodway easier to activate has officials in Mississippi County worried that that means the frequency of activation could increase. Farmers have groused that they've lost millions in crops due to the spring activation and that their structures have been damaged beyond repair.
"Sure, it worries us," said Kevin Mainord, mayor of East Prairie, Mo. "We need to concentrate on getting the levees back, but it just amazes me we're spending millions of taxpayer dollars so we can just blow it up again. Then we'll spend millions to put it back again after that. It makes no sense."
Mainord is especially outraged, he said, because the activation of the floodway in May, in his estimation, didn't do what it was supposed to do. Corps officials have maintained throughout that there were significant drops in flood stage at several communities in Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky as a direct result of activating Birds Point.
Presiding Commissioner Carlin Bennett also doesn't like the idea of a clay cap on top of sand.
"What they're talking about doing is making the vast majority of that levee easier to destroy again," Bennett said. "At this point, we'll take what we can get to offer us some protection this fall and next spring, but doing that doesn't make any sense to me."
Instead, Bennett and others would like to see an 11-mile spillway that is capped by concrete. In those places, the cap would be two or three feet lower than the rest of the levee. That would allow natural overtopping, he said, to reduce flooding in other areas. It would still send floodwaters into the spillway, but not at such a fast rate and without the cost of rebuilding the levees.
"It would be like basically putting a notch in the levee," he said. "Water would come in slower and not a giant wall like this spring. Our land, bridges and farms wouldn't have seen near the damage that they did."
Bennett admits that the corps isn't likely to go for that idea, however.
"We'd settle for the second-best option," he said. "They just need to put our levees back to the way they found them."
Mississippi County, MO