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Decision sought on 60-year-old Missouri wetlands plan

Levee project for Mississippi River in dispute

WASHINGTON — An engineering project introduced during the Eisenhower administration may be carried out in the Obama administration, but with no more consensus now than during the past 60 years.

The plan to plug a quarter-mile gap in an enormous levee along the Mississippi River and install two pumping stations will help control flooding in southeastern Missouri. But it requires draining as much as 55,000 acres of wetlands that provide backwater habitat for fish and waterfowl.

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A number of factors have stymied the plan in the past, including a local community’s inability to put up matching funds and a 2007 court ruling that found the Army Corps of Engineers ‘‘acted arbitrarily and capriciously’’ in its plan to offset the project’s environmental impact.

But the Corps of Engineers is about to release its seventh analysis of the $165 million project saying the benefits outweigh the loss of the wetlands, according to a copy of the assessment obtained by The Washington Post.

Missouri senators — Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill — are pressing US officials for a final decision.

One hundred and fifty landowners and tenants raise mostly corn and soybeans on 100,000 acres in the New Madrid Floodway. About every three to five years, floods either harm some of their crops or force farmers to delay planting. The Corps estimates that eliminating flooding there will produce an annual $15.5 million in benefits, by preventing damage and enabling the planting of a more diverse set of crops.

Lynn Bock, the attorney for the St. John Levee and Drainage District, said the area’s economic fortunes are tied to the productivity of its farmland. ‘‘That land out there is essentially our Ford factory,’’ said Bock, whose family owns land in the flood plain. ‘‘Anything we can do to improve how the farms are doing improves our lives.’’

He added that he and others believe some Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Interior officials have overestimated the extent of wetlands in the region, especially on agricultural land. ‘‘It’s a perspective that doesn’t take into account what we see locally,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s why some of us locally have become so frustrated.’’

But a coalition of opponents — iscientists, taxpayer advocates, and environmentalists — warn that the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway project will sever one of the river’s remaining natural flows.

They say that not only will it destroy critical fish-spawning and birding habitat, it will also intensify farming in an area the Corps is obligated to flood under certain conditions — for example, as it did in 2011 — to divert water threatening upstream communities such as Cairo, Ill.

‘‘It’s completely idiotic,’’ said Steve Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense. ‘‘We’re going to increase development in an area we’ve designed to flood if we need to protect Cairo.’’

Many authorities — including the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the EPA — argue that using the same engineering that has already wiped out 93 percent of the lower Mississippi flood plain could have disastrous consequences.

FWS supervisor Amy Salveter at the Missouri Ecological Services warned Corps officials in a letter that its plan will ‘‘result in unacceptable losses of nationally significant fish, wildlife, and aquatic resources.’’

Charles Scott, who worked on the project for 12 years, said the quarter-mile gap in the levee is the last tie on of the Mississippi to its flood plain in Missouri. Since the gap allows the river’s flow into the flood plain and saturate the wetlands, ‘‘Once that connection’s gone, you can’t get it back,’’ he said.

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