KANSAS CITY — Federal efforts to create thousands of acres of shallow-water Missouri River habitat to help an endangered fish species have been backlogged nearly six years in the waterway's namesake state because of an ongoing dispute about where to dump excavated dirt.
The situation is so dire that only a fraction of the habitat has been built. The issue recently came to a head when a Missouri agency took the unusual step of refusing to act on a permit request for a long-stalled project, raising new questions about what will happen next in the effort to provide a refuge for young pallid sturgeon and other native species. The Army Corps of Engineers is considering its options while farm groups are vowing continued opposition.
"The state thumbed its nose at the corps," complained project backer Ken Midkiff, chair of the Missouri Clean Water Campaign, a project of the National Sierra Club.
At issue is the corps' effort to recreate about 20,000 acres of slow-moving shallow-water habitat — 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 in 2003 because, while changes to the river aided navigation and improved flood protection, the pallid sturgeon population has dwindled. That puts at risk the future of a dinosaur-era relic that can live more than 50 years and weigh up to 80 pounds.
The conflict has centered on what to do with the dirt excavated to create the new habitat. Farm groups don't want the fertilizer-laden soil dumped into the river, as happens in many of the projects, saying they'll get the blame when it causes environmental problems and that Missouri is spending millions to keep it out of the river.
"If they try dumping dirt, we plan to sue," threatened Bob Perry, general manager of Perry Agricultural Laboratory Inc. in Bowling Green. "They usually blame agriculture for this pollution. But they are going to dump this soil right in the river."
However, proponents, including 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. Before the upstream dams and reservoirs were built, the Missouri River was far muddier.
As a result of the debate, only about 3,500 acres of shallow-water habitat have been constructed so far. Much of it has been built in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, where there haven't been objections.
Nearly 60 percent of the new shallow-water habitat — or 12,000 acres — is supposed to be built in Missouri, where the 2,341-mile river cuts a 543-mile path. But 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 near the village of Arrow Rock in the central part of the state.
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's offered to make changes.
But fixes to Jameson Island and construction of other side channel shallow-water habitat projects planned for Missouri have been stalled amid the ongoing permit discussion.
"Our inability to construct over the past six years in Missouri has put us way behind," said Steve Fischer, the head of the corps' Missouri River Recovery Program, adding that the agency has a target of completing 6,000 acres of shallow-water habitat projects by 2014, a goal designed to keep the project on track. "At some point the Fish and Wildlife Service could find us in jeopardy of not complying with the biological opinion. It's not a comfortable position to be in."
For part of the six-year span, the Jameson Island project was held up while an environmental study was conducted on claims that dumping excavated soil into the river contributes 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, which the Missouri empties into. The nutrients cause oxygen depleting algae blooms.
The National Academy of Sciences found in 2010 that the corps' plans to dump more soil into the river wouldn't significantly affect the dead zone in the gulf. It estimated that the Corps' plan would add 34 million tons of sediment more per year into the Missouri River, which would boost sediment flowing to the Louisiana coast by 10 to 20 percent.
Farmers, however, aren't sold and have fought hard against Jameson Island, fearing it will begin a series of projects that will exacerbate the problem, and they'll get blamed. Already, environmentalists want more done to reduce fertilizer runoff and animal waste making it into waterways.
"As the ag industry works to reduce the hypoxia levels in the gulf, it would do the opposite," said Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association. "It doesn't make sense."
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, announcing it would take no action. John Madras, director of the Water Protection Program for the DNR, said the inaction would allow the process to move forward without getting "bogged down at deliberations at our level here."
But Zach White, the corps' project manager for Jameson Island, said the agency has never seen a state simply refuse to act. He said the corps believes it has the authority to proceed without the permit, but that the agency prefers to have input from the state.
"After all these public meetings, we were a little bit disappointed," White said. "We are currently weighing our alternatives to proceed with the project."