Ten groups are asking Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to put the brakes on a project that’s designed to help an endangered fish species.
The Missouri Farm Bureau, the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association and the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association are among the groups that signed onto a letter Aug. 26 opposing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to proceed with construction of a shallow-water project near the village of Arrow Rock in mid-Missouri. Last month, the corps awarded a $3.5 million contract for the Jameson Island project, ending a six-year holdup and raising hope among environmentalists that other stalled Missouri projects also would move forward.
The projects are designed to provide a refuge for young pallid sturgeon. But farm groups are opposed because the corps plans to put much of the dirt excavated to create the new habitat into the river. The corps and environmental groups say researchers have determined the soil dumping won’t cause trouble and note the pallid sturgeon evolved to live in large, silt-filled rivers.
But farm groups fear that putting the fertilizer-laden soil into the river would contribute to a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Experts blame the low-oxygen, or hypoxic, conditions primarily on farm fertilizer runoff brought by the Mississippi River, into which the Missouri empties. The nutrients cause oxygen depleting algae blooms.
“Agriculture gets blamed for all the pollutants and things that go into the river,” said Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association. “We know that if the corps dumps the soil into the river its’ going to be blamed on agriculture, the pollutants.”
But Zach White, the corps’ project manager for Jameson Island, said in an email there is no information demonstrating that the shallow-water projects lower the water quality of the Missouri River.
The Jameson Island project is part of the corps’ effort to recreate about 20 percent of the approximately 100,000 acres of shallow-water habitat that disappeared when the river was dammed and straightened and its channel narrowed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the corps to undertake the habitat effort because, while changes to the river aided navigation and improved flood protection, the pallid sturgeon population has dwindled.
But while nearly 60 percent of the new shallow-water habitat is supposed to be built in Missouri, only a handful of projects were completed in the state before concerns were raised in 2007 about what the corps was doing with the dirt it was excavating to create a side channel at Jameson Island.
While state officials debated the project, floodwaters washed out the final stretch of dirt needed to reconnect the side channel to the river. However, farmers complain water exiting the side channel re-enters the river in such a way that it erodes a levee that protects farmland. Although the corps says the levee concerns are overstated, it offered to extend the side channel and change the way the water re-enters the rivers.
But permit discussions and the wait for an environmental study had stalled fixes to Jameson Island and construction of other side channel shallow-water habitat projects planned for Missouri. Ultimately, the National Academy of Sciences found in 2010 that the corps’ plans to place more soil into the river wouldn’t significantly affect the dead zone in the gulf.
With those results in hand, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was on the verge of issuing a water quality certification for the Jameson Island project in January when the agency abruptly withdrew it. Ultimately, the corps moved forward on the project and is considering starting work next year on one or two similar projects in Missouri.
The letter to Nixon noted that the issue is important because “policies enacted for the Jameson Island chute will set a precedent for future projects in Missouri.”
Nixon spokesman Scott Holste referred questions to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. DNR spokeswoman Gena Terlizzi provided a copy of the department’s letter withdrawing the water quality certification and an online link to Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. She didn’t respond to requests for additional comment.