(Laura Simon) [Order this photo]
At a 3 1/2-hour public hearing Monday aboard the Motor Vessel Mississippi, the public also pleaded with commissioners to find a way other than using explosives to activate the floodway to avoid what happened last May. That's when explosives were used to blast holes in the levees to alleviate flooding in other places.
John Moreton of Cape Girardeau farms 1,600 acres in the floodway. He drove two hours to Tennessee to speak his mind.
After making his claim that the floodway activation didn't reduce floodwaters by nearly enough to warrant it, he said the corps should "agree to never use explosives to activate our floodway again."
Government representatives ranging from levee districts to the federal level traveled from across Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee to speak to the commission, which works closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop plans to prevent river flooding.
But a good portion of the discussion centered on what the commission and the corps intends to do to restore the floodway levee in Mississippi and New Madrid counties and what can be done differently to diminish the damage should the floodway need to be activated again.
Lester Goodin is a fifth-generation floodway farmer and member of the levee district that represents about a third of the 130,000-acre floodway that was inundated with floodwaters in May when the corps opted to use explosives to activate it.
He spoke Monday morning, telling commissioners that levees there need to be rebuilt soon. He also said that if the corps decides to activate the floodway again, it needs to allow the levees to naturally overtop, which would not cause the same damage that they saw last year -- including deep scouring that is still there today.
"Because 2011 was cataclysmic for the floodway," Goodin said. " ... I know you don't want to see it happen again, and we certainly don't."
In response, Maj. Gen. John Peabody, who heads the corps' Mississippi Valley Division and is the commission's president, said the goal is to award contracts to private firms in May to rebuild the levees to their preblast protection levels of 62.5 feet on the Cairo, Ill., gauge. They hope to have the levee work finished by the end of the calendar year, but Peabody said he could not guarantee it.
As far as using other methods, Peabody, who replaced Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh as commission president last year, said the corps is prepared to study methods other than using explosives, although he said right now the priority is rebuilding.
But at least one civilian commissioner, Sam E. Angel of Lake Village, Ark., said the idea of allowing natural overtopping was not without merit. Natural overtopping would take place by letting the rising river waters cascade over the levee at a slower rate rather than letting it rush in, Angel said, which is what many of the farmers blamed the damage on.
"It seems to me that allowing natural overtopping is a common-sense way to go," Angel said. "It probably would even be cheaper. It's certainly something that we need to look into."
Meanwhile, Emerson, a Cape Girardeau Republican, sent her in-state director, Josh Haynes, to present her comments, which included demanding that the corps rebuild the levees quickly.
"Protection is still woefully inadequate," Emerson wrote the commission in a letter. "Even though forecasts for the river this year are low, we cannot take anything for granted. It is unacceptable that protection for this area that sacrificed so much to protect the integrity of the entire system is now delayed due to circumstances beyond their control. The levee must be built back to its original 62.5 feet by the end of the year and I expect that to happen with no excuses."
In her letter, Emerson went on to say that the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project should be completed. The plan was first proposed in 1954, but was brought to a halt five years ago based on environmental concerns. Among other things, the project would have closed the now-famous 1,500-foot gap in the floodway. The corps had started the work when a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of two environmental groups that had brought a lawsuit alleging the work would destroy natural habitats.
The project would also construct a system of gates to control the water flow between the river and the floodplain and include a large pump to remove water from behind the gates when necessary.
Emerson pointed to recent efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency to "undermine this critical project." The EPA has used "questionable methods," Emerson said, to define thousands of acres of new wetlands even as the Natural Resource Conservation Service has long maintained that 520 acres of farmed wetlands exist in the project area. The Fish and Wildlife Service, she said, has conducted a wetland inventory targeting only the project area, Emerson said.
About 33 percent of the corps budget is set aside for environmental projects, which did not set well with Dustin Boatright, who is district engineer of Southeast Missouri's Little River Drainage District. Unlike infrastructure improvements, environmental projects do not have "significant value," he said.
"We are tired of wasting money on an environmental agenda," Boatright said.
But Peabody countered that, in his opinion, there is room for both kinds of projects under the umbrella of what the corps does.
In his remarks, Col. Vernie Reichling, who commands the corps' Memphis District, told those assembled that the corps is committed to getting as much done this year as possible. The damage done near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers "is our number one priority," Reichling said.
While the corps has already spent about $20 million on partially rebuilding the Southeast Missouri levees last year, an influx of cash from Congress will provide another $22 million to repair damage to Cairo, Fulton County, Ky., and in the floodway.
"It will not be business as usual over the next couple of years," Reichling said.