DNR decision leaves people wet

A Missouri Department of Natural Resources' decision last week has effectively stalled the U.S. Corps of Engineers' $85 million St. John's Bayou and New Madrid Floodway project aimed at ending flooding caused by the Mississippi River in Mississippi, New Madrid and Scott counties in Southeast Missouri.

The Corps of Engineers, which has been developing this project for nearly half a century, is at odds with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the implications of closing a 1,500-foot gap in an existing levy -- one of the few places along the lower Mississippi where the river is permitted to overflow into its natural flood plain. The Corps of Engineers believes protection of human inhabitants in the area, their farms and their businesses is vital. The Fish and Wildlife Service says local ecosystems are dependent on the cyclical flooding, and the virgin forest of Big Oak Tree State Park would be endangered if natural flooding is stopped.

The DNR cited the dispute between the two federal agencies as its reason for denying water-quality certification for the project. However, that decision can be appealed, and supporters of the project say that's what they intend to do. The Corps of Engineers, meanwhile, rebuffs suggestions for a third-party review, saying it would only add to the cost and cause further delays.

Most disappointed of all by the DNR's decision are folks who live near New Madrid and Sikeston, where periodic flooding is the bane of an otherwise good place to live and work.

Among the champions of the project are U.S. Sen. Christopher Bond and U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, whose 8th District includes all of the affected area.

In a response to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial supporting the DNR's decision -- an editorial that said environmental concerns outweighed the human factor and that the project was far too costly -- Sen. Bond made a strong argument on behalf of the project's proponents. Here are excerpts of Bond's letter, published Monday in the Post-Dispatch:

"Faced with a choice between protecting 6,000 rural people of modest means in Southeast Missouri from flooding or going ahead with an environmental experiment, the Post-Dispatch sided against the people.

"Safe behind its 500-year floodwall, the Post-Dispatch moralizes about the evils of flood protection elsewhere without fear of getting its own newsprint wet. Not once in all your editorials about how others should bear the burden of returning the river to its supposed 'natural flow' has this paper volunteered the once-natural flood plain now inhabited by downtown St. Louis. ...

"I believe we can protect the environment while also protecting people and their land and livelihoods -- people like Jim Robinson and his neighbors. ..." in Pinhook and East Prairie.

The floodway project was first authorized in 1953. Because they waste precious funds, the stalling games serve no one.