Nature finishes what engineers began on Missouri River habitat

Monday, November 1, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:50 p.m. CDT, Monday, November 1, 2010
The Missouri River is home to several endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers were working on a project to create habitat for the species, but in 2007, the Clean Water Commission halted the project due to pollution concerns. After a review by the National Academy of Sciences, the project was cleared to continue.

COLUMBIA — This wasn’t supposed to happen — at least not this way.

A two-mile side channel along the Missouri River near Arrow Rock, a project designed to restore wildlife habitat as part of a congressional mandate, was under way in 2007 when farmers across the river in Howard County raised questions about the piles of dirt being dredged and dumped into the river.

The state Clean Water Commission intervened, and contractors soon after pulled their heavy equipment from the site known as Jameson Island — one of four federal habitat projects costing more than $10 million in total along the Missouri River left in limbo by the controversy.

"We just wrapped up where we were at, then moved out," Chance Bitner, an engineer with the Corps of Engineers, said. "At Jameson, we were at about half of our planned excavation."

Contractors hired for the project were expecting $3.9 million; they ended up receiving $2.2 million.

"We were disappointed to do something halfway and walk off, to use the taxpayers money to halfway finish a job," said Charlie Scott, an ecological field supervisor in Columbia with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.

In response to the Clean Water Commission, the Corps asked for a scientific review of how excavated soil from the habitat projects would affect the river.

On Sept. 28, the National Academy of Sciences concluded the Missouri River was sediment-starved and that phosphorous from the soil being dumped at the habitat projects would not significantly impact the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, as the Clean Water Commission had feared.

For Jameson, the report was moot. The river had finished, on its own, what the heavy equipment didn't.

"There’s been a lot of high water and that’s helped form that chute," Scott said. "That’s exactly how we like to see those develop. The river creates the chute. From everything I’ve seen, it looks like it’s been a success."

The slower-moving side channel, designed by engineers and finished by the river, is what the Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service envisioned — a promising habitat.

"It’ll be a great habitat for fish and all kinds of aquatic organisms, including the pallid sturgeon," Scott said.

Though Bitner said the Corps thought there was a chance of the river carving the side channel, there was no guarantee this would be the outcome after the project had been halted.

"We knew that it could happen," Bitner said. "We didn’t know for sure that all the high water would come through."

Though water is flowing through the side channel at Jameson Island, part of the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, the chute isn't finished.

Tom Bell, the manger of the Big Muddy refuge, said the side channel is diverting slightly more of the river's flow than it should and structures would eventually need to be built to keep the main river channel in place. Those plans have not yet reached the design phase, he said.

Similar projects are underway in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa to help provide for wildlife threatened by the changes to the Missouri River.

"It’s going to require a number of projects like this to turn the tables around," Bell said.

Though the National Academy of Sciences report was favorable for the Corps, Bitner said other similar projects along in Missouri — chutes at Tarkio River in northwest Missouri and Baltimore Bottom between Columbia and Kansas City — would not be restarted immediately.

"It would probably be as much or more than a year, just based on other projects we have on queue," Bitner said.

Rush Bottom, one of the other projects put on hold, was finished in 2008 after the Corps adjusted their plans to address the concerns of the Clean Water Committee.

These projects alone will not solve all the problems created by nearly 60 years of bank stabilization, upstream dams and flood control, Bell said, but the chute at Jameson Island and other similar projects to create habitats will make a difference.

"We’re talking about something that’s been going on for more than six decades," Bell said. "It’s not going to get turned around in three or five years."


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Steve Schnarr November 1, 2010 | 12:17 p.m.

If you are interested in finding out more about what is going on underwater in these chute habitat projects, check out the presentation by USFWS biologist Andy Starostka on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at Les Bourgeois Bistro in Rocheport.
For more info, check out Missouri River Relief's website:

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