About 100 people filled the hearing room aboard the Mississippi River Commission's motor vessel "Mississippi" which was docked at New Madrid Monday morning for the fourth of seven public meetings scheduled as part of the MRC's annual low-water inspection trip down the Mississippi River.
Brigadier General Robert Crear, commander of the Corps' Mississippi Valley Division and president-designee of the MRC, opened with a summary of issues affecting the Corps.
He noted the 125th anniversary of the MRC, a seven-member executive body of presidential appointees established to maintain the river's channels and banks, and the accomplishments of the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project.
Following the disastrous 1927 flood, the MR&T Project was created by the 1928 Flood Control Act as a complex comprehensive plan for improving the river from Cape Girardeau south to Head of Passes, La.
Crear said $12 billion has been invested in the MR&T Project since its inception, yielding a 24-to-1 return in prevented flood damages and transportation benefits.
Despite an aging infrastructure, increased use of facilities, increased environmental requirements and the addition of new security requirements over the last several years, "our funding has been flat," Crear said. "It has not been keeping up with inflation."
For example, locks built with 50-year lifespans are now about 70 years old, Crear said, but the Corps was directed to put in homeland security measures as part of the global fight against terrorism. Additionally, this is now to be the highest priority item in the Corps' operations and maintenance fund.
"We have to secure these facilities," Crear said - and at the same time keep the infrastructure from crumbling. "That's a challenge." With the operations and maintenance fund already stretched, more facilities are being added to the "backlog" of those that are nearing failure.
Crear's remarks were followed by a presentation by Col. Charlie Smithers, commander of the Corps' Memphis District, on the district's current projects.
Smithers said there are three missions for the MR&T program: flood protection, providing for navigation and environmental stewardship.
He discussed projects under the first heading ranging from riverfront improvements in progress at New Madrid to culvert repairs, channel cleanouts, scour repairs and other maintenance along tributaries and the Mississippi.
Smithers said the Memphis District must keep 335 miles of river clear for navigation. He also discussed other projects not related to the MR&T program and some of the environmental challenges faced by the district such as erosion control.
Local organizations and members of the public then had the opportunity to make presentations and offer comments.
While many of the comments from elsewhere in the district focused on local problems and other requests for assistance, representatives of the immediate area praised the progress on the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project.
Commissioner Sam Angel of Lake Village, Ark., said that during their tour of the upper Mississippi, most of the comments commissioners heard were related to recreation and navigation, but noted comments from the lower Mississippi are almost all about flood control.
Angel also said he was told by someone in St. Louis all about the 18,000 acres of wetland threatened by the St. John's Bayou-New Madrid Floodway Project but hasn't been able to find thousands of acres matching that description. "In fact, I don't even know if I've seen a couple hundred," he said.
Explaining his comments were offered "not as a complaint, but as information," Commissioner R.D. James of New Madrid said paying for the war on terrorism is making demands on the their budget when they already are unable to adequately maintain the existing infrastructure.
As a result, there are no new projects "because we know we can't fund them," James said. The budget strain is "very real - it's affecting you today."
He also expressed appreciation for comments from the public which James said are essential for their report to Congress.
"Hopefully we do see some positive things happen," Commissioner William Clifford Smith of Houma, La., said regarding Congress' response to the Commission's report.
In closing, Crear praised the local commitment and the team work demonstrated by the community and local, state and federal level officials in addressing their goals.
Crear also remarked on the inspection trips. He said they are an opportunity for both large and small communities to get their voices heard as well as an opportunity for the Commission to "look at your concerns first-hand."