A Win for the Mississippi River

After a devastating year for flooding on the Mississippi River, it’s good news to see a recent report by the “congressional watchdog” agency that makes long overdue recommendations on how the Corps of Engineers (the “Corps”) must follow current laws and protect the environment when it comes to building and maintaining structures that support navigation on the Mississippi River.   

American Rivers and other environmental organizations have been questioning the environmental impacts of these “river training structures” for years (see A Citizen’s Guide to the Corps of Engineers). For over a century, the Corps has lined the Mississippi River with large rock structures – called “wing dikes”, “bendway weirs”, and “chevrons” – to “train” the river to flow in a way that will ensure a 9-foot channel for navigation.   

The Middle Mississippi, the focus of the study, is situated between the confluences of the Missouri and Ohio Rivers and spans roughly 195 river miles.  Along this stretch there are more than 1,375 manmade “river training” structures to support navigation, which is roughly 14 structures per mile. 

The US Government Accountability Office or “GAO” report The Mississippi River: Actions Are Needed to Help Resolve Environmental and Flooding Concerns about the Use of River Training Structures confirms our suspicions that the Corps of Engineers’ St. Louis District ignored the environmental impacts of river training structures. 

  • Old Data: Remarkably, the Corps’ St. Louis District has been relying on 35 year old data from an Environmental Assessment (EA) that they conducted back in 1976 even though federal law requires that new analysis be done for any project that significantly impacts the environment and even though the river and its environment have changed dramatically since then, not least due to the fact of the huge number of these navigation structures.
  • Wrong Permit:  The Corps’ St. Louis District incorrectly processed the construction of river training structures under a nationwide permit, the wrong permit, even though their sister districts were permitting these structures correctly using the 404 “dredge or fill” permit under the Clean Water Act. 
  • Noncompliance with Federal Law: The Corps’ St. Louis District did not comply with two federal environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA), as mentioned above.  Under NEPA, the Corps is required to study environmental impacts on any major federal action that significantly affects the environment.  Surprisingly, even after the pallid sturgeon and the least tern were listed as endangered in 2000, the Corps still constructed 23 new chevrons in the Middle Mississippi from 2003 – 2010 based on a 35 year old environmental assessment.    
  • Inadequate Science:While the Corps’ St. Louis District assessed hydrologic impacts such as the volume and speed of the river flow, it did not assess environmental impacts of these river training structures after construction to understand how these structures degrade fish and wildlife habitat or increase flooding.

We are hopeful that the Corps will adhere to environmental laws that have been on the books for ages, that they will prepare the required environmental impact assessments, and that they will conduct the necessary scientific studies to understand the cumulative impacts on the environment, particularly on habitat and flood heights.

While the St. Louis District deserves a lump of coal in their stocking this year, here’s to a new year and a “new” process for the Corps’ St. Louis District for 2012!