MEMPHIS - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is another step closer to closing the gap between the Setback and Frontline levees at the New Madrid Floodway but appears to be on the verge of meeting what could the last significant obstacle.
Thursday the Corps awarded the first contract for the St. John's Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project to Hill Brothers Construction and Engineering of Falkner, Miss., the apparent low bidder for this part of the project, according to Larry Sharpe, lead project manager for the Corps.
The $25.4 million contract includes closing the gap and building a gravity outlet structure and pumping station there. "I understand they have partnered with a firm out of Poplar Bluff on previous projects and may do so on this one," Sharpe said. A starting date has not been set.
Finding and negotiating for mitigation land to address environmental issues is "going to be an ongoing process probably for the next few years," Sharpe said. About 1,600 acres were purchased this year so far with a little over 7,000 acres being required for this portion of the project.
"We can not totally close the gap until we have purchased all the mitigation lands and easements that are required for the New Madrid Floodway portion of the project," he explained. "Our need for assistance is with local landowners and state and federal agencies working with us to identify suitable lands to purchase - we are limited to willing sellers."
A more pressing concern for the project's supporters is the lawsuit filed Sept. 10 by Environmental Defense and National Wildlife Federation, both of Washington, D.C., followed by a request filed Wednesday for a preliminary injunction to halt the project.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the Corps; Les Brownlee, Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Army; the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Ann Veneman, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The 35-page amended complaint consists for the most part of accusations made by environmentalist during their appeal of the water quality certification.
"A lot of it is a repeat of the same things," Sharpe said. "We're in the process of working on an administrative record for the decision makers." The Corps has 60 days from the filing date of complaint to put the record together, "so we're working on that already," he said.
"The major complaint, of course, is we think it will have major detrimental effects from draining thousands of acres of wetland," said Timothy D. Searchinger, legal counsel for Environmental Defense.
The area to be closed off represents the "last significant backwater habitat for fish on the Mississippi River," Searchinger said. "We don't think their mitigation does much to offset that." He explained fish won't be able to access the mitigation land because most of it is on the land side of the levee.
Searchinger said this particular project would affect as much wetland as all the Corps' other projects in a year's time combined.
The plaintiffs claim in their lawsuit that the project would reduce the backwater flooding habitats from an area that ranges from 51,000 to 78,000 acres down to 2,550 acres or less.
The lawsuit concedes that flooded cropland is "less beneficial than forested wetlands and marshes" but "still provides valuable habitat and water quality filtration for polluted agricultural runoff."
The Corps' mitigation plan to offset this would reforest 8,375 acres of floodplain cropland.
The plaintiffs also claim the project will not really address East Prairie's flooding problems.
The project would have "almost no effect on East Prairie," Searchinger said, as the town's flooding is due to local rainfall and uncontrolled agricultural drainage from the north. "For a much smaller amount of money they could completely eliminate flooding in East Prairie," he said.
"Flooding in East Prairie is unrelated to the backwater that the levee closure and drainage pumps are designed to address," the lawsuit reads. Channel improvements in the St. James Ditch, according to the plaintiffs, will only reduce flooding in a small area of East Prairie on its eastern edge.
Searchinger said he wants it to be "crystal clear" that "we believe in full flood protection for the urban areas - we believe it is critical."
He suggested looking into alternatives "that will fully protect them from flooding" such as digging additional runoff ditches or compensating New Madrid County farmers for additional flooding on their land located in the basins.
"The town of East Prairie is going to flood forever if this project goes through," Searchinger said. "Their flooding frequency will not change one iota. They believe this will eliminate their flooding problem and it won't."
"The city (of East Prairie) needs a good drainage system to get the water to the primary outlet, which is the St. James Ditch," Sharpe said.
Sharpe explained the Corps "does not get involved in providing flood control for small drainage areas of less than 1.5 square miles in area."
The St. Johns pumping station, which is slated for construction 2-3 years from now, would, however, provide the outlet East Prairie needs when the river is high and the gravity outlet for the St. John's Bayou has to be closed.
"Ultimately we'll have channel enlargement that goes all the way to East Prairie from New Madrid," Sharpe said.
Channel work and the pumping station will make East Prairie's interior drainage work feasible, Sharpe said, without which the city could only expect "very limited benefit."
The plaintiffs also claim the project does not meet the benefit-to-cost test, in part because the Corps' cost-benefit figures are based on an interest rate that is too low, according to the plaintiffs.
"Our basic pitch is this is a project that has harsh environmental effects," Searchinger said, adding their environmental concerns are coupled with the belief that East Prairie will spend all its enterprise community funding on this project "and then it won't have any money left to solve its flooding problem. We think the money should go to solving that problem."