Concerns, hopes for floodway project

Tuesday, April 9, 2013
The M/V Mississippi approaches the Thebes, Ill., railroad bridge Monday during the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi River Commission High-Water Inspection. (Laura Simon)

The plan for the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project includes mechanisms to allow seasonal flooding, preserving the floodway's natural connection to the river, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official said on Monday during a public hearing conducted by the Mississippi River Commission at the Cape Girardeau city front. And in the event of future catastrophic flooding, the levee will again be breeched, they said.

As part of its annual high water inspection trip, the commission received compliments and fielded criticisms during the three-and-a-half-hour hearing aboard the M/V Mississippi from stakeholders whose livelihoods depend on the management of river water and channel navigation.

Cairo, Ill., Mayor Tyrone Coleman addressed the commission and thanked the corps for efforts to save the town during historic flooding in 2011, and expressed "great concern and anxiety" about potential negative effects from the completion of the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project.

Coleman said he worried completing the project, which would close a 1,500-foot gap in the levee system, would encourage development in the floodway that might complicate the activation of the levee -- in 2011, it was breeched in three places with explosives -- should such a flood event occur in the future. He urged the commission to abandon the floodway aspect of the project and complete the St. Johns portion, which would provide a pumping station at the convergence of the Farrenburg Levee and the Setback Levee to prevent backwater flooding.

Maj. Gen. John W. Peabody, commission president and commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the corps, said activation of the floodway would not change in the future. R.D. James, a civil engineer of New Madrid, Mo., one of three civilian commission members, said the corps is congressionally authorized to use the floodway to protect the confluence area of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

James said the fact that law rules the floodway system should alleviate Coleman's concerns.

Coleman said his concern was that laws could be changed.

"I prefer life over land," Coleman said.

"I think we all do," James said.

Peabody said information released in an environmental-impact statement draft, the next step in the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project, should further lessen worry. In the works since 2008, Peabody said, the EIS draft should be released "sometime this spring."

The project's design includes mechanisms that would permit seasonal flooding, allowing the natural connection of the river to its traditional floodplain and wetland habitats. Opponents of the plan have said completion of the levee would cut off that access, damaging river ecosystems.

Floodway farmer Dean White, a member of the St. Johns Levee and Drainage District, said "environmental extremists" were to blame for misinformation about the project. He said he hoped people with opposing views could come together and discuss their problems.

"It's just pitting neighbor against neighbor," said White, who said he was a past member of the Sierra Club and believed the project to be environmentally friendly.

Christine Favilla, Three Rivers Project Coordinator for the Sierra Club, said she was not an extremist spreading dissent, just someone who loves the river.

She echoed Coleman's wish to separate the bayou and floodway projects. She also said the Reinvesting in Vital Economic Rivers and Waterways Act of 2013, sponsored by Sen. Robert "Bob" Casey Jr., D-Pa., did not provide needed funding to improve infrastructure and would create a heavy burden on taxpayers that should be shouldered in a greater proportion by the river industry.

An alternative to detonating the floodway, allowing the levee system to naturally overtop, was suggested by Ed Marshall of Missouri Levee District No. 3.

Col. Vernie Reichling, commander of the corps' Memphis District, said exploration of that option was being studied and a full analysis, with three-dimensional modeling, would be completed in three to five years. Peabody said nonexplosive methods would require lower levees along the entire system.

The corps also was asked by speakers at the hearing to continue dredging operations and take a more proactive approach to maintenance of the river and tributary system, instead of responding to disasters. A document collecting all the costs associated with the 2011 Birds Point levee breech and changes in the methods of levee inspections also were requested.

The commission shared its vision for the future, which included improving the nation's aging infrastructure, which was given an overall grade of "D-plus" by the American Society of Civil Engineers in its 2013 report.

The commission was established in 1879. Members, who are appointed by the president, include three general officers from the corps, one member from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and three civilians, two of whom must be civil engineers.

Current commission members are Peabody; James; Sam Angel, a civilian of Lake Village, Ark.; Dr. Norma Jean Mattei, civil engineer of Metirie, La.; Brig. Gen. Margaret W. Burcham of the corps; Brig. Gen. Anthony C. Funkhouser of the corps; and RDML Gerd F. Glang of NOAA. Funkhouser was not present.


Pertinent address:

Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Cairo, Ill.

New Madrid, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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