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Corps gets closer to finishing temporary fix at Birds Point levee

Thursday, September 29, 2011

(Photo)
John Moreton walks along the eroded farmland Wednesday, June 1, 2011 in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.
(Laura Simon)
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to wrap up interim repairs early next month on one of three spots in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway levee that it blasted in May.

The other breaches -- made in a controversial move to alleviate massive spring flooding -- are expected to be finished by Nov. 30, corps officials said Wednesday.

"We're still on target to meet the deadline," corps spokesman Jim Pogue said.

The southernmost breach near Donaldson Point Conservation Area is more than three-fourths done, with a target completion date of Oct. 6, Pogue said. The upper breach, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, still has a little less than half the work remaining and a Nov. 16 completion date.

Work on the center breach, slowed by endangered birds that nested nearby until August, is only 12 percent completed, Pogue said, adding that the delay won't lead to a missed deadline.

Crews began working June 16 to repair a total of nearly 15,000 feet of levee -- 9,000 at the upper breach, 800 feet at the center one and 4,700 feet at the lower one, according to a project update document provided by the corps.

Work has also included filling scour holes with sand dredged from the river bottom, realigning earthen levee segments and removing excess water, the report says.

The corps has also had to deal with what Pogue called "desensitized" blasting agent found at the upper and lower breaches. The unexploded blasting agent has been removed and is being stored in a holding area, Pogue said. The corps is awaiting a permit from the Missouri Department of Transportation to transport the diluted compound from the area, he said.

"It's been put in barrels and in a fenced containment area," Pogue said. "But it's harmless."

The corps has dedicated 43 personnel, 41 pieces of heavy equipment and spent $5.7 million of the overall $15 million to temporarily set the levee to a height corresponding to 51 feet on the river gauge at Cairo, Ill. But a full restoration of the levee to 62.5 feet will cost an additional $21 million.

The corps has every intention of rebuilding the levee to its condition before the blast, Pogue said, but funding isn't currently available.

The corps continues to remain committed to getting the levee back to its original height, Pogue said. High-ranking corps officials are evaluating the whole flood-protection system before ranking the projects that were also wrecked by the spring floods.

The corps has been pressured by U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson and Missouri's senators to rebuild the levee to its original height, if possible before spring floods next year.

"Where there is a potential for the loss of life, that's always going to be at the top of the list," Pogue said. "But the floodway is also important. It's going to happen. It's not an if. It's just a when."

The 130,000-acre floodway is in Mississippi and New Madrid counties. Carlin Bennett, the presiding commissioner of Mississippi County, said he receives updates on the corps' progress twice a week.

Bennett's also awaiting an answer to an open-records request that he sent to the corps earlier this month. He wants to see documentation and correspondence to verify if the decision to breach the levee worked as well as corps officials say it has.

In response, Pogue said the corps legal department is still studying the request and will naturally follow the law.

While Bennett thinks the temporary fix will provide some protection, he still maintains that the corps needs to fully restore the levee -- and quickly. But he doesn't think it will happen this year.

That has some worrying about next year's spring flooding.

"If the same thing happens next year that happened this year, we'll be refixing everything again," Bennett said. "That water is going to come right back in and we'll have to do it all over again."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

Wyatt, MO


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